Climate Change’s Disproportionate Impact on Maternal and Newborn Health: Urgent Need for Equitable Action

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A recent report by the World Health Organization (WHO), UNICEF, and the Partnership for Maternal New Born and Child Health has shed light on the profound impacts of climate change on pregnancy and its devastating consequences for maternal and newborn health. Titled “Born Too Soon: Decade of Action on Preterm Birth,” the report underscores the alarming reality that those who have contributed the least to the climate crisis are bearing the brunt of its effects.

One of the most alarming findings of the report is that 91 percent of deaths among preterm babies linked to air pollution occur in low and middle-income countries, despite high-income countries being the major contributors to climate change. The detrimental effects of climate change on pregnancy are multifaceted and range from direct factors like heat exposure, extreme weather events, and air pollution, to indirect factors such as food insecurity, waterborne diseases, vector-borne diseases, migration, conflict, and weakened health systems.

Air pollution alone is estimated to cause six million preterm births annually. The burning of fossil fuels, a major source of air pollution, increases the risk of preterm birth by 52 percent in asthmatic mothers. Furthermore, extreme heat exposure raises the risk by 16 percent, while drought and other extreme weather events exacerbate the vulnerability.

The report also highlights the significant association between climate change vulnerability and maternal and newborn health. Districts in India with high climate change vulnerability tend to perform poorly in women and children’s health indicators. Yet, despite the mounting evidence linking climate change and maternal and newborn health, the issue remains largely underestimated on the political agenda.

Pregnancy and newborn health often take a backseat to other concerns, and the environmental impacts on maternal and newborn health have not received adequate attention or resources from policymakers. This urgent situation calls for a change in approach. Governments need to engage in dialogues with women, community groups, health worker associations, and other stakeholders to identify and address their specific needs. A comprehensive response should encompass behavioral, health system, policy, and environmental solutions.

It is crucial for the health sector to play a dual role in building climate resilience while ensuring the quality of care and the well-being of patients and health workers. Recognizing the risks faced by women and vulnerable newborns, efforts must be made to overcome the fragmentation between sectors and foster collaborative, multi-partner initiatives.

In conclusion, the report serves as a clarion call to address the disproportionate impact of climate change on maternal and newborn health. Urgent and equitable action is needed to mitigate risks, prioritize women and babies in climate-related policies and programs, and provide the necessary investments to safeguard their well-being. Only through collective efforts can we mitigate the adverse effects of climate change on the most vulnerable members of our global community.

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