Increasing global temperatures threaten gains in maternal and newborn health in Africa: A review of impacts and an adaptation framework
Anatomical, physiologic, and socio-cultural changes during pregnancy and childbirth increase vulnerability of women and newborns to high ambient temperatures. Extreme heat can overwhelm thermoregulatory mechanisms in pregnant women, especially during labor, cause dehydration and endocrine dysfunction, and compromise placental function. Clinical sequelae include hypertensive disorders, gestational diabetes, preterm birth, and stillbirth. High ambient temperatures increase rates of infections, and affect health worker performance and healthcare seeking. Rising temperatures with climate change and limited resources heighten concerns. We propose an adaptation framework containing four prongs. First, behavioral changes such as reducing workloads during pregnancy and using low-cost water sprays. Second, health system interventions encompassing Early Warning Systems centered around existing community-based outreach; heat-health indicator tracking; water supplementation and monitoring for heat-related conditions during labor. Building modifications, passive and active cooling systems, and nature-based solutions can reduce temperatures in facilities. Lastly, structural interventions and climate financing are critical. The overall package of interventions, ideally selected following cost-effectiveness and thermal modeling trade-offs, needs to be co-designed and co-delivered with affected communities, and take advantage of existing maternal and child health platforms. Robust-applied research will set the stage for programs across Africa that target pregnant women. Adequate research and climate financing are now urgent.