Hurricanes during pregnancy raise newborn health problems

July 6, 2012

Babies born to moms who were in hurricanes during pregnancy have higher rates of health problems at birth, according to a working paper issued by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

  • Birth complications more likely if mother is in path of hurricane during third trimester

  • Storm-related stress did not equate with increase in unhealthy behaviors

  • In utero stress did not impact length of gestation or birth weight

 
Babies born to moms who were in hurricanes during pregnancy have higher rates of health problems at birth, according to a working paper issued by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Researchers used birth records from Texas and meteorological records from The Weather Underground Hurricane Archive to identify children born in the state between 1996 and 2008 whose mothers were in the path of a hurricane or major tropical storm (ie, causing more than $10 million of damage) while they were pregnant. During the time period studied, 8 hurricanes and tropical storms hit Texas, the worst being Tropical Storm Allison in 2001, which caused more than $50 billion in damages and 40 deaths, followed by Hurricane Ike, which caused almost $20 billion in damages and 103 deaths. The investigators then compared the children’s health at birth with that of siblings from pregnancies during which no major storms occurred in the vicinity.

The researchers found that women living within 30 kilometers of a hurricane’s path during their third trimester were 60% more likely to have a newborn with an abnormal birth condition, such as requiring a ventilator for more than 30 minutes or aspirating meconium, and 30% more likely to have any complication during labor and/or delivery. The researchers also found some evidence of increased risk of first-trimester exposure to a major storm; no clear evidence existed for second-trimester exposure.

The investigators were able to isolate the stress caused by a storm itself from other storm-related factors, such as decreased availability of health care services in a storm’s aftermath or damage to a pregnant woman’s home, leading to injury or increased risk of illness. They found no evidence that the stress associated with being in a major storm increased unhealthy behaviors in the pregnant women; they didn’t smoke more, gain more weight, or neglect prenatal care, for example.

While other studies have found that in utero stress can affect length of gestation and birth weight, this study did not. But the researchers say the study is important because it adds to the growing body of evidence indicating that major stress during pregnancy can negatively affect newborn health and, potentially, later development.

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