As the UK bakes in record-setting temperatures, its meteorological service issued its first-ever extreme heat warning this week. Public Health England extended its own heat health alert through July 23, as soaring day- and night-time temperatures persist.
Yet despite known links between extreme heat during pregnancy and poor birth outcomes, authorities have yet to take critical steps to protect pregnant people from rising temperatures due to the climate crisis.
Research shows high heat exposure during pregnancy – such as in heatwaves – is a risk factor for stillbirth and preterm birth, which can cause lifelong adverse health effects and is a leading cause of infant death globally. Heat stress also threatens health during pregnancy.
Yet unlike Santé Publique in France, the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) does not include pregnant people among those “most at risk” in its online guidance for coping with hot weather. The Heatwave Plan for England calls for identification and support of people “particularly vulnerable” to heat health issues, but does not include pregnant people in its “high-risk groups” and makes no mention of pregnancy and the associated risks from extreme heat.
Ensuring heat-related protections for pregnant people is an issue of women’s rights as well as racial and economic inequality. In the UK, stillbirths and preterm births are already more likely among Black and Asian babies. Black women are four times more likely and Asian women twice as likely to die during pregnancy and childbirth than white women, and those living in the most deprived areas are nearly three times more likely to die than those in more economically advantaged areas.
People exposed to extreme temperatures for prolonged periods of time, such as workers in agriculture, warehouses, or kitchens, are more likely to suffer heat-related health effects. Women and people from Black, Asian, migrant, low-income, and other marginalized communities are often overrepresented among such workers.
As climate change makes heatwaves an ever-increasing reality across Europe, authorities in England and Wales should ensure pregnant people are identified as high-risk, include them in public messaging about heat-related precautions, and build this into heat action plans. The UK government should prioritize pregnant and other at-risk people for additional support, such as access to cooling centers or leave from jobs with high heat exposure when temperatures soar.
As the climate crisis accelerates, the effect of extreme heat on pregnant people is a public health risk that can no longer be ignored.