Maternal Heat Exposure Linked to Miscarriages in Sub-Saharan Africa

UKZN scientists (from left): Dr Yoshan Moodley, Professor Andrew Tomita, Professor Frank Tanser, and Dr Kwabena Asare.

Maternal Heat Exposure Linked to Miscarriages in Sub-Saharan Africa

A study by UKZN scientists to be published in upcoming issues of the Women’s Health Journal established a clear relationship between maternal heat exposure during the month preceding conception and miscarriage in a sub-Saharan African setting.

The scientists believe that it is likely that progressive climate change leading to increased temperatures will exacerbate existing challenges for women’s reproductive health in this region, resulting in increased pregnancy loss.

The study investigated the relationship between maternal heat exposure and miscarriage (pregnancy ending before 20 weeks gestation) in a rural community in the uMkhanyakude District of KwaZulu-Natal between 2012 and 2016. The community has been monitored for over two decades as part of the Africa Health Research Institute’s Health and Demographic Surveillance System. The scientists included Dr Yoshan Moodley, a Clinical Research Fellow in the School of Clinical Medicine and Nursing and Public Health academics, Professors Frank Tanser and Andrew Tomita as well as Dr Kwabena Asare.

Although most of the evidence on the impact of higher temperatures on pregnancy outcomes has been based on studies of the prenatal period, the scientists felt that maternal exposure to high temperatures during the preconception period is also an important factor in understanding issues around women’s health in this setting.

This area was selected as the two most important public health problems facing women of childbearing age in the uMkhanyakude District include a high HIV incidence of 3.06 seroconversion events per 100 person-years and a high maternal mortality ratio of 650 maternal deaths per 100 000 live births.

Lead author of the study, Moodley commented, ‘Maternal exposure to an increasing number of hot days during the month prior to conception was associated with an increased risk of miscarriage. These findings suggest that extreme heat exposure during the preconception period is harmful to human oocytes, but this would require further physiological and clinical investigation beyond the scope of our population-based analysis.’

The scientists used data from the South African Weather Service to compute maternal exposure to heat during the month preceding conception and during the week preceding the study outcome (either a miscarriage or no miscarriage). Heat exposure was measured as the mean number of days the mother was exposed to temperatures higher than 26.6 degrees Celsius.

A total of 105 out of 3 477 pregnancies included in the analysis ended in miscarriage (3%). Each additional hot day during the month prior to conception was associated with a 26% higher odds of miscarriage.

Senior author of the study, Tomita said, ‘Climate change poses an existential threat to all, but pregnant women in resource-limited rural sub-Saharan Africa bear some of the most severe consequences. We believe there is inadequate attention to maternal health in the discourse, and much work needs to be done to safeguard pregnant women from the impacts of climate change in rural sub-Saharan Africa.’

Words: MaryAnn Francis

Photographs: Supplied