Hurricane Katrina and Rita devastated New Orleans and surrounding Gulf areas, resulting in loss of homes, lives, infrastructure and jobs. Most estimates put the death toll at about 2,000 from the two storms. However, a new study adds to the sad story by demonstrating that the hurricanes caused more than 200 fetal deaths. Stillbirths significantly increased in the hardest hit Louisiana parishes after the hurricanes. The number have been higher if displaced people who left the area are included.
The researchers noted the tremendous research done on public health impacts on adults and children from natural disasters. However, they wondered whether there were negative effects on the unborn, who were exposed to the mother’s stress and trauma in utero during and after the disaster. They chose to specifically look at the two hurricanes that wreaked havoc and destruction in Louisiana.
The study, published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, looked at birth and damage records. They studied birth data between 1999 and 2009 to determine the odds of a stillbirth in each area affected by the storms. Then they zeroed in on the period two years before and after Hurricane Katrina stuck on August 29, 2005, and Hurricane Rita followed a month later on September 24.
The researchers compiled damage data from the storms and determined that 38 of the 64 parishes (what Louisiana calls the equivalent of counties) had suffered damage. They determined that 205,000 units of housing were affected. In the four hardest hit parishes, more than half of the homes were damaged. Between 10 and 50 percent of homes in three others sustained heavy damage. Elsewhere, damage ranged from less than 1 percent to 10 percent of housing.
The research team calculated the stillbirth odds over the 10-year period. They also looked in a tighter four-year period. The odds of a pregnancy leading to a stillbirth were less than 1 percent in 20 months before Hurricane Katrina and within 28 months afterwards.
They determined that the stillbirth rate increased 40 percent in the three parishes that had 10 to 50 percent of homes damaged. In the hardest hit areas, the likelihood of having a stillbirth more than doubled. Studying available data, they determined that half of the 410 stillbirths recorded in extensively damaged area were caused by the hurricanes.
Lead author Sammy Zahran, who is a Colorado State University associate professor of demography, noted that mothers of similar ages, race and other characteristics had different outcomes based on where they lived when the hurricanes struck. The authors expressed the hope that the increased risk to pregnancies be accounted for in disaster preparedness efforts and that expectant mothers be watched more closely if impacted by a disaster.
Other studies have looked at the likelihood of birth complications, including stillbirths, and links to maternal stress or depression. It would be interesting to compare the results with other disaster areas or situations. However, one thing was clear in the research presented, the hurricanes caused an uptick in stillbirths adding to the devastating toll.
By Dyanne Weiss