What Natural Disasters Mean for Pregnancy

The word ‘disaster’ comes from the Greek for ‘bad star’, right out astrological superstitions that characterized much of human history, but when it comes to surviving a disaster a rational scientific approach must prevail. When we talk about a natural disaster, we are referring to catastrophe caused by a natural event. In this context, that means a disastrous event caused by something other than war or other human activities. Technically, this does not make sense either, since humans are very much part of nature. Furthermore, human activity is modifying the climate to an extent that the frequency and intensity of certain natural disasters in certain locations is changing. But language is what it is, so with this caveat, let’s just say that natural disasters can include severe weather (such as hurricanes or tornadoes), flooding, volcanic eruptions, forest fires, or earthquakes, even though we can imagine human intervention causing any of these types of events, either by way of current technology (including matches), or future technology (such as intervention with forces in and below Earth’s crust).

Usually, a natural disaster occurs suddenly and causes a lot of suffering, loss of life, or damage. Pregnant women and those who are lactating can be particularly vulnerable to effects of natural disasters, such as shortages of food and potable water, as well as a plethora of mental and physical health issues.

First, we should note that natural disasters can interfere with your ability to get pregnant in the first place. Researchers studied populations affected by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005. The study showed that a range of mechanisms, included population displacement and reduced access to obstetric medical care and other reproductive care can harm fertility, reducing the number of pregnancies and birth than would occur without the disaster. Fertility also can increase, or decrease, in particular parts of a population. As an example, African American fertility dropped in New Orleans dropped, while Caucasian fertility rose, after Hurricane Katrina.

There is a good deal of suspicion that natural disasters may cause spontaneous abortions (miscarriages), although research is needed to determine if there is any basis for the concerns. No direct association has been detected between natural disasters and birth defects, but in the case of volcanic eruptions, there is often a release large amounts of heavy metals, such as mercury, and this is known cause birth defects.

Pregnant women and those who are lactating can be particularly vulnerable to effects of natural disasters, such as shortages of food and potable water, as well as a plethora of mental and physical health issues.

It is difficult to determine, or to prove, whether there are consequences for the baby in the long term. Exposure of the mother to high levels of certain mercury compounds (organic mercury) appears to increase the risk of developmental problems in the fetal brain, which can harm the baby’s cognitive abilities. While the mercury that is released from volcanism is not part of organic compounds, the connection between mercury and other heavy metals with volcanic eruptions makes it plausible that such a volcanic eruption could cause birth defects. When it comes to floods, earthquakes, and severe weather, it is much more difficult to prove a connection between the disaster and birth defects.

Breastfeeding during, or following, a natural disaster can be a good idea, if there is a shortage of safe drinking water for making infant formula. Furthermore, power outages will mean that there won’t be refrigeration for bottles of formula that has been mixed already. If you need to stop breastfeeding, make sure that you mix the formula only with water that is known to be safe. Also make sure that the water that you drink yourself is safe.

Following most natural disasters, it is important to receive the appropriate immunizations. These include vaccines for hepatitis A and hepatitis B and appropriate booster shots, such as the booster for tetanus, known as Tdap. Infections, including diseases resulting from contaminated drinking water, also must be treated. Following a natural disaster, it is also recommended that you seek psychological counseling for any behavioral problems, such as mood or anxiety disorders that could have been triggered by the experience.

Whether or not you are pregnant, it is recommended that you keep emergency kits or backpacks, stocked with supplies, such as drinking water, storable food, medications, insect repellent, first aid supplies, and infant formula.

David Warmflash
Dr. David Warmflash is a science communicator and physician with a research background in astrobiology and space medicine. He has completed research fellowships at NASA Johnson Space Center, the University of Pennsylvania, and Brandeis University. Since 2002, he has been collaborating with The Planetary Society on experiments helping us to understand the effects of deep space radiation on life forms, and since 2011 has worked nearly full time in medical writing and science journalism. His focus area includes the emergence of new biotechnologies and their impact on biomedicine, public health, and society.

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