New Climate and Maternal and Child Health group launched on International Women’s Day

Launching today, on International Women’s Day 2024, the new Climate and Maternal and Child Health (CLIMACH) special interest group at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) recognises and aims to address the specific challenges women face as a result of the climate crisis
Black woman with orange t shirt standing in green field looking at the camera

Professor Veronique Filippi and Dr Ana Bonell write about the particular vulnerabilities of women, the need for urgent action and the focus of the CLIMACH group.  

Climate change and environmental degradation pose the greatest threat to human health in this century. These threats manifest in various forms, ranging from the immediate impacts of extreme weather events (such as hurricanes, storms, floods, heatwaves and droughts) to the less obvious but still deadly effects of changes to food and water security, vector borne disease patterns and mental health.

Among those most impacted by climate change, pregnant women and their newborns are particularly vulnerable due to a convergence of environmental and social factors that have led to poor maternal and child health outcomes, especially in the Global South. For example, mothers exposed to high temperatures during pregnancy are at increased risk of complications to both mother and child, including pre-eclampsia, bleeding, pre-term birth and stillbirth.

Extreme weather events and disasters are also known to have significant and long-term impacts on maternal and child health, due to disruptions in water and electricity supply in health systems that lack climate resilience directly affecting patient care, resulting in suboptimal care for labouring women and delivered babies. Gender and cultural constraints can limit women's agency and mobility, further hindering their ability to reduce the risks associated with heat events, particularly when they are pregnant or looking after a small child. In addition, poverty is a major cause of increased risk during heat events, and as women comprise 70% of those living in extreme poverty, many women are living in poor housing conditions with limited access to cooling, and limited options to avoid working in the heat. More broadly, climate change threatens women's rights to sexual and reproductive health by disrupting physical access to essential services like comprehensive family planning services, potentially increasing the risk of gender-based violence, and facilitating harmful practices such as child marriage linked to increased poverty.

Veronique Filippi, Professor of Maternal Health and Epidemiology at LSHTM and Co-Coordinator of CLIMACH explains why she works on the effects of climate change on maternal health:

“Heatwaves are linked to an increase of 16% in the odds of preterm births, with preterm births being the most important cause of neonatal mortality and disabilities globally, and leading to immense distress for women.

“In addition, exposure to extreme heat during pregnancy has been linked to pre-eclampsia, the second most important cause of maternal mortality globally. Without climate change, we would have made more progress in maternal and child health without a doubt.”

LSHTM is globally renowned for groundbreaking research in the field of maternal and child health, as well as research on the nexus of climate change and health. The Maternal, Adolescent, Reproductive and Child Health (MARCH) Centre at LSHTM is comprised of more than 500 researchers working in diverse disciplines, from laboratory scientists developing new diagnostic tools, to economists documenting the costs of maternal health policy interventions. The Centre on Climate Change and Planetary Health (CCCPH) at LSHTM is leading the way in exploring the complex interconnectedness of climate change and health, and finding evidence-based actions to improve both human health and the health of the planet as exemplified in the Pathfinder Initiative.

Since 2019, a growing number of colleagues at LSHTM have conducted research on the links between climate change and maternal and newborn health in the Global South, where maternal mortality is highest and the vulnerability to climate change is strongest.

Working collaboratively with other research groups across the globe, we now have 10 research projects at LSHTM which complement each other by their geography, disciplines and focus on climate hazards, ranging from physiological studies on the effects of heat on the placenta in The Gambia to heath system resilience in the context of flooding in Zambia and Brazil. In order to share our interdisciplinary expertise and diverse skill sets from these different research projects, we have created a new LSHTM special interest group, CLIMACH (Climate and Maternal and Child Health), which aims to strengthen our combined knowledge and maximise our ability to create impactful change to the lives of women and children.  

Ana Bonell, Assistant Professor based at the Medical Research Council Unit The Gambia (MRCG) at LSHTM and Co-Coordinator of CLIMACH said:

“While there are still some epidemiological gaps in understanding how the climate impacts maternal and newborn health, we know that some simple measures must be implemented now since women and children on our planet cannot wait much longer.

“CLIMACH will provide a space to share knowledge, methods, leverage research impacts across the School, and support and maintain expertise in climate and maternal health research.

“Ultimately, the detrimental health impacts women face requires urgent action in both mitigation (stopping the burning of fossil fuels) and adaptation (reducing the health impacts of climate change). This group aims to accelerate research across LSHTM and beyond, to tackle the challenges of the climate crisis and make a real difference to the lives of women and children.”

Find out more about the projects involved in CLIMACH and how you can join us in tackling the urgent challenge of addressing the impacts of climate change on maternal and child health. 

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