New research from The Australian National University (ANU) on the impact of natural disasters on maternal health has found women whose pregnancy was impacted by Cyclone Yasi were more likely to give birth prematurely and have babies of low birth-weight.
The study looked at Queensland birth records collected under the Australian National Perinatal Data Collection from January 2008 to December 2012. The analysis found that in 2011, the year of the cyclone, there was an increase of around 20 per cent for premature births in the impacted region.
Researcher Dr Alison Behie said that while it was well known that environmental stresses can affect pregnancies, to date less is known about the impact of natural disasters, specifically natural disasters in Australia.
"There was a significant increase in premature births in the affected areas during the year that Cyclone Yasi hit," Dr Behie said.
"What we are finding is that it is the stress at the beginning of pregnancy that could have the greatest negative outcome on births."
"Our study showed it was pregnant women in their first trimester at the time of the storm that had the most pre-term babies."
Premature babies have a higher infant mortality rate and an increased risk of health issues such as respiratory problems, infections and loss of vision or hearing.
Study co-author and PhD Scholar with the ANU School of Archaeology and Anthropology, Cynthia Parayiwa, said the results of the study could be used to improve health policy for times of natural disaster.
"In areas that are highly susceptible to tropical cyclones, or floods and fires, we need to ask if our policies to protect expecting mothers are adequate," Ms Parayiwa said.
"With climate change we are going to be seeing more and more of these extreme weather events, so it is very important that we identify which people are most vulnerable and how we can best mitigate impact."
Category 5 Cyclone Yasi hit Northern Queensland in 2011 causing around 800 homes to be lost or left uninhabitable, and causing around $3.5 billion in damage.
The study has been published in the International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction under a paper titled Effects of prenatal maternal stress on birth outcomes following tropical cyclone Yasi in Queensland, Australia (2011).