Hurricane KatrinaWhen you stop and think about the stress of a major disaster like a hurricane, this new research makes perfect sense but the topic had never been studied before. The Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health has issued a new report on the impacts of a disaster on the unborn. The majority of research documenting the public health impacts of natural disasters focuses on the well-being of adults and their living children. Negative effects may also occur in the unborn, exposed to disaster stressors when critical organ systems are developing and when the consequences of exposure are large.

The destruction caused by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita imposed significant measurable losses in terms of fetal death. Postdisaster migratory dynamics suggest that the reported effects of maternal exposure to hurricane destruction on fetal death may be conservative. The 2005 hurricanes resulted in almost 2,000 deaths of children and adults, but researchers have concluded that as many as 205 excess fetal deaths should be added to the toll in the six hardest hit parishes.

Using data on housing damage gathered by the federal government, researchers found that between 117 and 205 stillbirths in the six most severely affected parishes could be attributed to distress caused by the storms — an estimated 17.4 to 30.6 percent of all storm-related deaths in those areas.

The authors acknowledge that their figures are rough approximations. Housing data does not capture the full extent of the loss, and the forced migration of many people complicates the picture. Still, they estimate that for every 1 percent increase in the destruction of houses, there was a 1.7 percent increase in fetal deaths.