Hurricane Sandy could lead to poorer birth outcomes for N.J. babies

The initial response to Hurricane Sandy has, necessarily, focused on immediate needs, such as restoring power, providing shelter and trucking in fuel to the area. However, after the most pressing problems are resolved and communities begin the long task of rebuilding, public health officials should make it a priority to assist some of the most vulnerable members of these communities — pregnant women and their unborn babies.

A series of studies following natural disasters in such places as New Orleans and China shows expectant mothers in storm-ravaged areas were more likely to have low birth weight and pre-term babies, both of which are important indicators of a newborn’s overall health. This means hospitals in the Northeast should be prepared for more newborns in need of higher levels of medical care.

In addition, hurricanes make mothers more likely to delay starting prenatal care, thereby reducing the overall amount of care pregnant women receive. Prenatal care is particularly important for helping to diagnose potential problems with a pregnancy early enough to intervene.

Several barriers make it difficult for women to access prenatal care after a disaster: Some health providers are closed, and those that are open are overwhelmed by other needs. Women are not able to reach their doctors because roads are blocked or some modes of transportation are damaged or out of service. And mothers who have evacuated are far from their usual doctors.

My research on seven hurricanes in North Carolina shows there can be long-lasting consequences for the children. If the children of Hurricane Sandy are like other children born in the aftermath of disasters, they will be more likely to struggle in school and need special education services.

Providing for these additional needs could put a strain on school districts in the future. The good news is there’s still time to intervene in ways that can reduce the harm to these soon-to-be-born children.

Studies haven’t yet discovered the precise mechanisms by which natural disasters harm developing babies, but medical research shows stress experienced by a mother has negative effects on her fetus.

Prioritizing aid to ensure that these women and their families have warm, safe housing, clean water and nutritious food is one effective way to reduce the stress expectant mothers experience.

Another way to address this is to reopen prenatal care offices quickly and provide extra sources of care in hard-hit areas. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends that health care providers in nearby towns make their services available to storm victims who have been relocated to their area. They also recommend that state and local governments establish care facilities within the disaster zone.

Even with all these measures, communities affected by Hurricane Sandy need to be prepared to provide early childhood resources, such as quality preschool, to children born in the wake of the storm.

Research shows that early interventions can help make up for problems indicated by low birth weight or early birth. Such programs could put children exposed to the hurricane before birth back on the right track.

While many different needs are competing for resources in the wake of Sandy, assisting pregnant women should be a priority because of the long-lasting consequences. Long after the waters have receded and buildings have been repaired, the children of Sandy will still be living in and going to school in our communities.

Making sure they get the best start we can give them is an important part of rebuilding from the storm.

Sarah Crittenden Fuller is a doctoral candidate at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy. Her research focuses on the effects of natural disasters on children’s educational outcomes. This op-ed was originally published in The New Jersey Star-Ledger on Nov. 15, 2012.