Study shows impact of disasters on mothers and babies

A new study from The Australian National University (ANU) shows areas of Queensland impacted by tropical cyclones had a significantly higher risk of preterm and low birthweight births.

Lead author and ANU PhD researcher Cynthia Parayiwa said with natural disasters becoming more and more frequent, further work is needed to minimise the risk for pregnant women, both in Australia and globally.

The study examined three separate tropical cyclones and the impact they had on birth outcomes.

“Following Cyclone Marcia in 2015, affected areas were almost twice as likely to have a low birthweight — less than 2,500 grams at birth — when compared to unaffected areas,” Ms Parayiwa said.

“Women in the early to mid-stages of pregnancy were also more likely to experience some of these poor birth outcomes.

“Despite Australia’s vulnerability to disasters like bushfires, cyclones and severe flooding, there has been very little research in this area until now.

“There should be a focus on identifying what is driving these outcomes – especially because they can have a big knock-on effect for mothers, children and the wider community.”

Ms Parayiwa’s study used detailed birth records and disaster relief data, as well as statistical analysis. She said this type of study makes it easier to concentrate on any trends that start to emerge.

“There’s a lot to consider. For example, is population data impacted by people evacuating from these areas and not coming back? Are the women who are staying behind those who are already more vulnerable to adverse outcomes?” Ms Parayiwa said.

“The next step would be speaking to mothers and medical practitioners in particular to really understand their experiences, and find any gaps where intervention is needed.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has added another layer of complexity when it comes to helping women and babies in disaster-affected areas.

“As we’ve clearly seen, just because the pandemic’s happening it doesn’t mean we’re not going to experience natural disasters,” Ms Parayiwa said.

“We should be considering the existing stress expectant mothers might be under because of the pandemic, as well as practical things like what evacuation centres look like if we’re being COVID cautious.

“You can’t just prepare for one event; you have to prepare for all of the things that happen afterward.”

The research has been published in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health.

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