Exposure to hurricanes while still in the womb may increase risk of foetal distress, which can cause long-range health problems after birth, new research reveals.
Foetal distress, which results from too little oxygen reaching foetal tissues, can impair intellectual and language development, and perhaps even put these children at increased risk of schizophrenia, the researchers noted.
Their conclusions are based on data involving mothers and infants who were in the line of Hurricane Andrew when it hit Florida's Miami-Dade and Broward counties in 1992.
"We observe noticeable spikes in the proportion of infants born distressed for all racial groups that correspond with the onset of Hurricane Andrew," study co-author Sammy Zahran, from Colorado State University's Center for Disaster and Risk Analysis, said in a news release from the Society for Risk Analysis.
The study is reported in the journal Risk Analysis.
To investigate how hurricane-related stress might affect a child, the authors compared data concerning hurricane-hit regions of the state with data from other Floridian counties that escaped the battering.
Babies who had been exposed in utero to the hurricane during the first trimester did not go on to display any signs of foetal distress, they found.
However, hurricane exposure during the second trimester provoked a 20% rise in fetal distress at birth. A rise in risk of 26% was observed among those exposed during the third trimester, according to the study.
Race also played a role, the researchers found. Black newborns exposed to the hurricane during the third trimester were 45 % more likely to experience foetal distress, they noted.
These risks add to the human and economic cost of severe hurricanes, the authors said.
Prioritise mothers during evacuation
Based on the findings, the authors suggest that expectant mothers be prioritised for evacuation in the face of an impending hurricane.
"When designing disaster planning initiatives, emergency managers should include representatives from groups and agencies that focus on women's reproductive health," the authors noted in their report.
"Relief centres should be organised to ensure that they meet women's needs for prenatal care."