Climate change is leading to premature births in the Brazilian Amazon
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Climate change is leading to premature births in the Brazilian Amazon


Flooded house

Flooding in the Brazilian Amazon in 2015

Brazil Photos/LightRocket via Getty Images

Extreme weather patterns and flooding worsened by climate change are adversely affecting the health of babies born in the Amazon rainforest.

Luke Parry at Lancaster University, UK, and his colleagues compared levels of rainfall with the birth weights and and pregnancy duration of nearly 300,000 babies born between 2006 and 2017 in the Brazilian Amazon. They found that babies in riverside communities were more likely to be born premature (before 37 weeks) and underweight following extreme weather like floods and droughts. Low birth weights and prematurity are associated with negative outcomes in education, health and income throughout life and subsequent generations.

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Babies born after periods of extreme rainfall were on average 183 grams lighter than those born at other times, with the gap increasing to 646 grams in the most socioeconomically disadvantaged groups. This difference is higher than in previous studies examining the impact of extreme weather on babies in other countries such as India, Mexico and Vietnam. The effect was present even when controlling for pregnancy duration – in other words, the lower birth weight wasn’t solely due to prematurity.

Floods in the Amazon following extreme weather mean pregnant women have less access to nutritious food due to crop failure and are more likely to contract infectious diseases spread by mosquitoes, which thrive in wet conditions. Both are likely to contribute to low birth weight and premature birth. Anxiety and stress following flooding may also play a role, say the researchers.

Major floods and droughts in the Amazon have increased in both frequency and severity in recent decades due to global warming – floods in the Amazon basin are around five times more frequent today than they were a century ago. Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, visited the state of Amazonas last week as cities were once again submerged by water, displacing more than 100,000 people.

“When the Amazon and climate change are discussed in the scientific community or in the media, it’s normally in relation to how fires contribute to carbon emissions and things like that,” says Parry. “I think showing that climate change directly affects the health and wellbeing of vulnerable people in Amazonia is really important as a global message.”

“Mitigating further climate change is really important but helping Amazonians adapt, particularly riverside communities, is key,” he says.

Journal reference: Nature Sustainability, DOI: 10.1038/s41893-021-00684-9

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