ECU Researchers Examine Link Between Hurricanes, Premature Birth

Jun 23, 2020

Credit Montse PB via flickr, Creative Commons

There’s an old wives’ tale about hurricanes having an effect on pregnant women that can cause a premature birth.

However, according to a recent study from East Carolina University, that claim is actually true.

After 30 weeks of pregnancy, a mother’s fetal membrane begins to weaken. The study shows stress on the membrane can rise during major drops in barometric pressure, like those experienced during category four or five hurricanes. When the external stress gets to be too much, the membrane can rupture.

Eats Carolina professor and leader of the study Michelle Oyen says there has been anecdotal evidence linking premature births with hurricanes, but never a mechanism to actually prove it. She worked with undergraduate researcher Mackenzie Wheeler to explore the phenomenon.

“The idea sort of has been floating around for probably decades that these two things are associated but we actually managed to come up with a linkage that's got that scientific evidence behind it,” Oyen said.

Oyen used a model she created to show how the fetal membrane’s strain varies depending on the barometric pressure and how far along the mother is in pregnancy.

“We used a simple model to examine the stresses in the membrane as a function of changes in external barometric pressure,” Oyen said in a statement. “The reason this model is interesting is that it provides a mechanism by which this external change might be related to preterm birth. The anecdotal evidence that women are more likely to give birth early has been circulating for many years. Only recently has some serious work been done to try and validate this anecdotal evidence with data. Our model provides a mechanism to test that data.”

Other studies fall in line with East Carolina’s findings. According to a 2016 story in the Atlantic, a paper published in the Archives of Gynecology and Obstetrics concluded that low barometric pressure “indeed induces delivery.” The story also says that when Hurricane Andrew hit Florida in 1992, about 1,500 pregnant women “flocked to area hospitals.”

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the eastern seaboard could see three to six major hurricanes this year. The 2020 hurricane season officially began on June 1.

WUNC's Mitchell Northam contributed to this report.