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US Study Suggests Hurricanes May Trigger Early Births

Most Vulnerable Communities May See Biggest Effects

A pregnant woman carries empty plastic bottles to collect water a day after the impact of Hurricane Maria, in Yabucoa, Puerto Rico, Thursday, September 21, 2017. © 2019 AP Photo/Carlos Giusti

A new study of almost 20 million births in the eastern United States suggests a pregnant person’s exposure to hurricanes may be associated with higher chances of a preterm birth. The report suggests severe storms could trigger early births because of stress, disruption of health services, or even mold.

As extreme weather events intensify in the US, this research points to one more way climate change may worsen already existing racial, ethnic, and income disparities in pregnancy outcomes. According to the study, the association between hurricanes and preterm birth was higher in socially vulnerable counties. This vulnerability was calculated using socio-economic and minority population data as well as other factors.

Because of the climate crisis, hurricanes are becoming stronger and more destructive. The eastern seaboard of the US faces another higher than average hurricane season this year, with experts predicting three to six major hurricanes in the Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico, and Caribbean Sea.

The new research makes the impact of these storms on pregnant people or people who have just given birth more visible. In the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, we found that most lacked proper access to prenatal care, information about emergency delivery services, breastfeeding support, or healthy food suitable for pregnant or lactating people.

But the study highlights a worrying trend in the US, where preterm birth is already on the rise and there exists inequitable access to the health care and environment conducive to a healthy pregnancy. Rates of preterm birth are far higher for Black and Native American women than white women. Preterm birth and low birth weight are the main causes of Black infant mortality in the US, but even late preterm birth is linked to lifelong health problems.

Many factors can contribute to preterm birth. In the US, Black mothers bear a disproportionate burden of health conditions linked to preterm birth, like diabetes and dealing with stresses like racism. Increased heat from climate change and air pollution are both also linked to higher rates of preterm birth. Like hurricanes, these do not affect everyone equally.

As the NAACP has noted, “disasters tend to devastate along the lines of existing inequalities.” We need a response to increasing disasters that involves the most affected in planning for storms, and that includes information outreach on health services in disasters. This should prioritize pregnant people, mothers – particularly those of color – and reproductive justice groups with strong community links.

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