The organizers of COP27, the 2022 United Nations Climate Change Conference, are calling this year’s gathering in Egypt a “defining moment in the fight against climate change.” We believe that the health of women and infants must be on the agenda as some of the most vulnerable populations affected by the climate crisis.
Below we have put together a high-level look at the issue and some steps decision makers must take.
- The climate crisis is making already high and unequal rates of maternal and newborn deaths worse.
- Pregnant women and newborns have specific biological vulnerabilities that make them especially exposed to the climate crisis.
- Heat and air pollution in particular can lead to higher rates of miscarriage, preterm birth, and stillbirth.
- While more research is needed to understand impacts and offer solutions, there are actions the global health community can take immediately to protect pregnant women, newborns, families, and communities.
Calls to action at COP27
COP26 marked one of the first occasions that the impact of climate change on maternal and newborn health was raised in the history of the global summit. This year, at COP27, we must continue the momentum to ensure that global decision makers prioritize maternal and newborn health in the climate change response. Whether you are attending the conference, following along online, or wanting to raise awareness about this issue within your own networks, here are three ways to get started:
1. Highlight the lack of focus on the specific vulnerabilities of pregnant women and newborns in policies and activities related to climate change.
2. Emphasize how little research has been done to find solutions to the climate challenges pregnant women and newborns face.
3. Stress that there are actions governments, practitioners, and partners can take now to help pregnant women and newborns adapt to the worst health impacts of climate change.
The climate crisis is worsening already unacceptably high levels of maternal and newborn mortality. Climate change-related impacts are driving inequities in health outcomes between and within countries. Planning a health system response to the climate crisis is already grossly inadequate, and maternal and newborn health has been especially marginalized.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report ‘Climate Change 2022, Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability’ has highlighted how pregnant women and children are particularly affected.
The impact of heat and air pollution on maternal and neonatal health is becoming increasingly established and includes higher rates of miscarriage, preterm birth, and stillbirth. Pregnant women are more vulnerable to heat-related illness and death. Newborns are especially heat-sensitive, as well. Metanalysis shows that the odds of preterm birth doubles for every degree Celsius the temperature increases. During heatwaves, the odds are even higher.
Warmer temperatures also increase the risk of vector-borne diseases, such as malaria, dengue, and Zika. These diseases also increase risks for pregnant women. For example, malaria infection in pregnancy is associated with premature delivery, stillbirth, and low birth weight. It is also a direct cause of maternal death, as well as indirect: malaria causes anemia, which increases the risk of dying from postpartum hemorrhage.
Climate change can also affect women and infants in other ways. Gender inequality and food insecurity are just two ways that the climate crisis intersects with other social, economic, and environmental determinants of health to put the lives of women at risk.Download talking points
These talking points were written by colleagues from White Ribbon Alliance, Clinton Health Access Initiative and Human Rights Watch. These organizations are members of an international working group of civil servants, maternal and newborn health experts and activists, academics, donors, and others investigating how the climate crisis is worsening maternal and newborn health and advocating for action to better protect pregnant people and newborns.To learn more please email us! Andrew Storey (CHAI), Elena Ateva: Elena Ateva (WRA), and Skye Wheeler (HRW).