Climate crisis: Children and pregnant women suffer the most

Marcia Zali

March 7, 2024

Higher temperatures are being recorded globally, and vulnerable populations like women and children are feeling the heat. From these extremely hot weather conditions and disease outbreaks, pregnant women have become more vulnerable as researchers observe an increase in adverse reactions, like early labor, preeclampsia, and miscarriage.

At the Born in a Burning World event on the sidelines of the COP28 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Dubai in December 2023, researchers and scientists raised an alarm about the need for early warning systems for pregnant women as the climate crisis continues. The panel’s focus was on mitigation and adaptation plans that would help save the lives of millions of pregnant women and children.

According to the Partnership for Maternal, Newborn, and Child Health (PMNCH), one in ten newborns is premature, and one of them dies every 40 seconds. The report states that out of the 13.4 million premature babies born in 2020, almost one million died. Climate change, COVID-19, and conflict were found to have increased the risks for both pregnant women and babies.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) reported that almost 800 women died daily in 2020 due to preventable causes related to pregnancy and childbirth. The global maternal death rate was reduced by 34 percent, but low and lower-middle-income countries had a high maternal death rate, accounting for 95 percent of all maternal deaths.

More advocacy 

Angela Baschieri, the Technical Lead for Climate Action in East and Southern Africa at the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), said advocacy and collaboration are crucial in ensuring that health remains on the climate agenda. Reflecting on COP24, when sexual and reproductive health (SRH) and maternal health were only allocated one session, she said having an entire program dedicated to health was a huge milestone for climate health advocates.

However, this is still lacking at the country level, where only 23 out of the 119 countries the agency reviewed in partnership with Queen Mary University mentioned maternal health in their nationally determined contributions (NDCs) on what they are committed to doing for their climate health programs. Of the 23, only 11 mentioned their health-related goals and interventions.

Baschieri said more work needs to be done to ensure coordination and standardized assessment mechanisms for SRH and maternal health issues and added that there should be an understanding of what communities know about climate change.

“We will start a project with the African Development Bank (AfDB), where we will train stakeholders at different levels. We will also have a pilot project to engage different parts of the community to find solutions through a human-centered design approach,” said Baschieri.

An environmental genocide

Casey Camp Honerick from the Women’s Earth and Climate Action Network (WECAN) said there was an environmental genocide against women from indigenous communities, and their land, water, food, and air quality have been affected by the delays in the phasing out of fossil fuels.

Danielle Frank from the Rios to Rivers said that as a young woman, she feared having children in a polluted world. “People need to understand that it is not just our environment that is dying, our people and their people too; we all share one planet, and these big polluters do not seem to understand that,” she said.

Maternal App for Early Warning

The smart heat health warning system is being developed to address the capacity gap in early warning systems, particularly for pregnant women in South Africa. It will enhance the existing systems from the South African Weather Services and the National Department of Health. This new system will leverage the MomConnect App, the South Africa health department’s tool for giving pregnant women and new mothers stage-based health promotion messages on their cell phones.

Up to 95 percent of all public clinics in South Africa have registered pregnant women on the App, with up to four million users, most of whom are satisfied with the information they receive. The App uses data points like the geo-location, pregnancy stage or newborn age, and the mother’s cell phone number.

“From the weather services data set, we will use data points linked to adverse health outcomes following individual or combined exposure during the perinatal period. These are temperature, relative humidity, air quality, rainfall, and wind speed,” explained Dr Elizabeth Leonard from the Clinton Health Access Initiative.

By integrating health and weather services, the App can accurately predict weather events that might negatively affect pregnant women. The App will add evidence-based perinatal climate health literature to the weather services forecasting systems.

“The geographic area crossing a defined climate health threshold will trigger a text message alert sent through the MomConnect platform to pregnant persons and mothers in exposure pathways. The messaging will be customized to the pregnancy stage or newborn age and will include adaptation measures that incorporate local knowledge and highlight when to go to a health facility,” she explained.

According to Dr Leonard, the App is a community-centered system. She hopes it will mitigate adverse health outcomes by empowering mothers to make well-informed decisions about their health and their newborn’s welfare. The concept can also be transferred to other countries.


Marcia Zali is a South Africa-based freelance journalist specializing in health and science reporting.