24 March 2020

Study to capture experiences of pregnant women during disasters

| Michael Weaver
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Pregnant woman

Researchers from the Australian National University are studying how natural disasters affect pregnant women. Photo: File.

Pregnancy is stressful at the best of times and the last six months have been anything but ideal.

Now researchers from the Australian National University (ANU) are studying just how stressful natural disasters are on pregnant women to help better understand this vulnerable group and the potential impact of future disasters.

“We’re looking for resilience factors in pregnant women, such as whether they had strong family networks or continued access to their doctors and midwives,” said PhD scholar Cynthia Parayiwa, who is conducting the study with Associate Professor Dr Alison Behie.

“But we also want to hear about personal stressors they may have faced. Did they lose a house, or a pet or a loved one during a natural disaster? Did they lose sleep or did they seek help?”

While the study will focus on pregnant women living in Queensland who were exposed to a severe cyclone event over the past 10 years, the team from ANU’s College of Arts and Social Sciences will also examine the impact of fire and flood on pregnancies.

The effect of the COVID-19 virus will not be immune from the study, however, researchers are only looking at women who were pregnant during a natural disaster.

“Studying the pregnancies of women who experienced cyclones in this decade, along with our other research from the Black Saturday and Canberra bushfires and Queensland floods, will give us the most comprehensive picture of how natural disasters impact pregnancies in Australia,” Dr Behie said.

“With the bushfires, smoke, cyclones and floods we’ve had just this summer, Australia needs to be better prepared for more frequent and intense weather events.

“With the data and personal experiences of vulnerable groups, we’ll be better able to say this is how we can best protect them,” Dr Behie said.

Previous work by the pair in 2018 found that more premature births were recorded in areas affected by Cyclone Yasi. Babies were also born with lower birth weights. Both these conditions were found especially among women in their first trimester when the cyclone hit.

Dr Behie said pregnant women are at a higher risk of having adverse birth outcomes such as low birth weight and preterm births after experiencing a disaster. Given that climate change has globally shifted both the frequency and intensity of environmental disasters, this poses a problem for pregnant women around the globe.

Dr Behie said the importance of stressors during the first trimester is not yet understood and hopes the research may shed new light on this critical period of pregnancy.

The Pialligo fire

The Pialligo fire near Canberra in January. Photo: Thomas Lucraft, Region Media

“Pregnant women are much more susceptible to any stress because their bodies are already under extra stress from carrying a baby. Experiences during disasters can trigger the endocrine system and release stress hormones, or cortisol,” she said.

“During the first trimester, the baby is getting established, so if there are high levels of cortisol in the system, it may signal to the foetus there’s a sub-optimal environment out there and maybe it speeds things up causing premature birth.”

The team, which has access to Queensland Health population records, will also document personal experiences shared by women.

“Participants will respond to a short online survey, and will also have the option of telling their story face-to-face or via video to give more insights into their pregnancy,” Ms Parayiwa said.

Pregnant women are invited to take the survey via a secure questionnaire on the ANU website.

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