Maternal Health on the Frontlines of Climate Change

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By: Dr. Salima Meherali, Assistant Professor at the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Nursing; Saba Nisa, Master of Nursing student at the University of Alberta; Yared Asmare Aynalem, PhD student at the Faculty of Nursing, University of Alberta; Zohra Lassi, PhD, Associate Professor and NHMRC Emerging Leader-2 (EL2) Fellow at the Robinson Research Institute and the School of Public Health of the University of Adelaide, South Australia, Australia

Climate change is not just a looming environmental crisis; it is also a significant threat to maternal health, amplifying existing vulnerabilities and inequalities. Pregnant women face heightened risks due to climate-related factors such as extreme heat, tornadoes, volcanoes, droughts, and floods. These risks include increased chances of pregnancy complications such as hypertension and gestational diabetes, potential impacts on fetal development, increased risks to maternal mental health, challenges in accessing healthcare services, and increased vulnerability to displacement and migration. The intersection of maternal health and climate change presents unique challenges that threaten to undermine progress in maternal healthcare and jeopardize the health and safety of women and infants worldwide.

Several studies have documented climate change’s direct and indirect effects on maternal health. For instance, extreme weather events, such as heatwaves, hurricanes, and floods, have been linked to adverse maternal outcomes, including dehydration, heat-related illnesses, and obstetric emergencies. Research indicates that pregnant women are particularly vulnerable to heat stress, with increased risks of preterm birth, low birth weight, and maternal mortality. In addition to direct health impacts, climate change exacerbates socioeconomic determinants such as poverty, low educational attainment, reduced access to clean water and sanitation, racial and ethnic minorities, and income disparities, disproportionately affecting marginalized and vulnerable mothers. Women in low-income and resource-constrained settings face heightened risks due to limited access to healthcare services, inadequate nutrition, and socioeconomic inequalities. Furthermore, climate-related disasters and uncertainties contribute to stress, anxiety, and depression among pregnant women. Chronic stress during pregnancy is associated with adverse outcomes such as preterm birth, low birth weight, and developmental delays in infants.

Addressing the complex intersection of climate change and maternal health requires comprehensive strategies that prioritize the well-being of pregnant women and their children. Despite the growing body of evidence on the linkages between climate change and maternal complications, there remains a critical gap in research and policy action to address these challenges comprehensively. There is an urgent need to incorporate maternal health into climate action plans, emphasizing protection for pregnant women and their unborn children. First, policymakers can prioritize maternal healthcare services within climate adaptation and mitigation efforts, ensuring access to prenatal care, skilled birth attendance, and emergency obstetric care in climate-vulnerable communities. Second, promoting maternal nutrition and sanitation initiatives can enhance the health and resilience of pregnant women and newborns in the face of climate-related challenges such as food insecurity and water scarcity. Third, strengthening health systems and infrastructure to withstand climate-related hazards can improve maternal health outcomes by ensuring continuity of care during extreme weather events or environmental disasters.

Understanding the intersectionality of social determinants of health is paramount in addressing the complex challenges pregnant women face, especially in climate change. Factors like poverty, gender inequality, and limited access to healthcare not only exacerbate maternal health disparities but also amplify the adverse effects of climate-related events on expectant mothers. By tackling these underlying social determinants, we can build stronger foundations for maternal health and resilience in the face of climate change. This includes advocacy for international cooperation and support, including financial aid and technology transfer, essential for maternal health resilience in the face of climate change, particularly in developing countries. Stakeholder engagement, including civil society organizations and women’s rights advocates, is vital for inclusive policy development and implementation. Resilience strategies must prioritize access to resources, early warning systems, sustainable agriculture, and community empowerment to mitigate climate-related risks and ensure maternal health and well-being. By implementing these measures, we can strengthen maternal health resilience and mitigate the adverse effects of climate change on pregnant women and their families.

In the face of these challenges, promoting equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) is crucial in our efforts to mitigate the impact of climate change on maternal health. EDI is the cornerstone of effective climate adaptation strategies, ensuring that vulnerable populations are adequately supported. Moreover, an intersectional approach to policy development is essential, acknowledging how factors like race, gender, and income intersect to shape vulnerability and resilience to climate impacts. Policymakers should prioritize the integration of gender perspectives into climate policies, ensuring that maternal health needs are adequately addressed and women are empowered to participate in decision-making processes related to climate adaptation and mitigation strategies. Tailored outreach programs, developed in collaboration with community leaders and stakeholders, are essential for effectively reaching marginalized groups, including indigenous communities, immigrants, and those living in underserved areas. Through participatory decision-making processes, all voices can be heard and respected, ensuring that adaptation strategies are culturally sensitive and relevant to the unique needs of each community.

Addressing climate change and maternal health intersection requires comprehensive strategies prioritizing equity, inclusion, and gender equality. By integrating maternal health into climate action plans and promoting resilience strategies, we can safeguard the health and well-being of pregnant women and their families’ in a changing climate.