A team of University of Alberta researchers is studying how the wildfire in Fort McMurray is affecting pregnancy and child development, hoping to intervene early and lower mothers’ stress levels to improve outcomes for their kids.
Women who were pregnant at the time of the massive evacuation in May or have become pregnant since the fire will be tested for their resilience.
Dr. David Olson is leading the study. The researchers will study the length of pregnancy, pregnancy outcomes and the cognitive, behavioural and health outcomes of the babies at six months, one and two years.
“We know from other Canadian data that women who are victims of natural disasters have a higher risk for adverse pregnancy outcomes and their children have increased risk for developmental delays and health problems later in life,” Olsen said.
READ MORE: Fort McMurray fire: Timeline of events
The team will pay particular attention to mothers’ stress levels and whether they are associated with pregnancy and newborn outcomes.
The participants will be split into three groups. One group won’t do any writing, a second will write about their feelings and a third group will write about healthy lifestyle. The researchers will study the women’s resilience.
“We wanted to actually not only just track the outcomes and do another tracking study – we said this time we have to do something about it, and so we agreed we would try to develop an intervention to lower the stress levels of mothers and then that would improve pregnancy outcomes as well as the developmental outcomes for their children,” Olsen said.
Megan Thorne has volunteered to participate in the project. While she wasn’t in Fort McMurray at the time of the evacuation, her parents and brother were.
“I ended up going to the emergency department in Newfoundland because I was having a full-blown panic attack. I really thought my family was going to die,” Thorne said.
Her home and her parent’s home were both destroyed in the wildfire.
“The stress levels associated with that were hard.”
Out of concern for her unborn child, Thorne stopped working earlier than she had planned.
“I could handle the stress, but I knew that my child probably couldn’t handle the stress,” Thorne said.
The new mother gave birth to a baby girl, and said her three-month-old daughter appears to be healthy.
Now, Thorne hopes to help other pregnant women deal with future natural disasters by participating in the U of A study.
“I don’t think people realize what stress can do to a child. So if this study can show that, then hopefully, if this was to ever happen again, maybe women would do things differently; maybe they would reach out to people differently,” Thorne said.
According to researchers, Fort McMurray has a higher percentage of pregnant women than the Alberta average because of the age distribution in the city. There were at least 1,200 pregnant women evacuated in May and 600 more who have become pregnant since the wildfire.