A new survey developed by ANU will examine the effects of this year’s bushfires and COVID-19 on pregnant women and their babies. Alice Watt reports.
We need to listen to the experiences of these mothers and look at the challenges they have faced through the bushfires and pandemic.
“The smoke was so thick that I couldn’t breathe. Being pregnant, your lungs are already squashed and this made it feel so much worse.”
Those are the words of Ms Zoey Salucci, who earlier this year while seven-months pregnant faced down raging fires enveloping her hometown of Cobargo on the New South Wales.
She became one of the famous faces of this year’s devastating fire season when Prime Minister Scott Morrison tried to shake her hand when visiting the fire-ravaged town. Zoey refused.
“I am only shaking your hand if you give more money to our RFS (Rural Fire Service),” she said at the time. “So many people here have lost their homes.”
Flash-forward to today, and Zoey is the proud mother of a healthy baby boy. But the fires could have changed that.
The bushfires forced Zoey to evacuate her home in Cobargo with her two-year-old daughter and shelter on a beach in Bermagui.
“I ended up sitting in a car because I couldn’t handle the smoke and I knew I would end up having to run to the beach if the fire got close,” she says.
The physical effects of the smoke were not the only issues she faced.
“I was under the most intense and indescribable stress that I have ever experienced. Not knowing how to escape or what the smoke was doing to my baby was the most horrible feeling,” Ms Salucci says.
Now her experiences are being investigated by ANU researchers as part of a survey examining the effects of this year’s bushfires and COVID-19 on pregnant women and their babies.
The four-part survey is part of a larger study in partnership with the University of Canberra, University of Wollongong, Canberra Health Services and NSW Health on how these recent events have impacted the living conditions, as well as mental and physical health of new mothers and their babies.
Lead ANU researcher, Professor Christopher Nolan says the results will be used to form a series of recommendations on how to improve our health system and emergency responses during major crises.
“We need to listen to the experiences of these mothers and look at the challenges they have faced through the bushfires and pandemic. Understanding these challenges is the only way we can look to improve these systems in the future,” Professor Nolan says.
Rebecca Clark gave birth to her youngest daughter in Canberra during the height of the COVID-19 restrictions. She said the stress had been her major concern as well.
“Ten minutes before I went in for my C-section we still hadn’t been told whether my husband would be allowed in with me,” Ms Clark says.
“We need to feel supported during those critical moments but instead I felt stressed from all the uncertainty.
“I spent a lot of my pregnancy feeling locked up and stressing over whether the bushfire smoke had had an effect on my baby and because of coronavirus, the stress and uncertainty stayed with me even in those final moments before I had my daughter.”
The survey will highlight the challenges women and their babies faced throughout the bushfires and pandemic as well as their adaptability and resilience in both the short and longer term.
Dr Michelle Hamrosi is a GP on the NSW south coast who treated women during this period.
“I saw many patients who suffered from smoke exposure, including pregnant mothers. These patients had suffered from the massive disruption to our normal lives and were filled with anxiety day after day as the fires kept threatening us. Their physical and mental health suffered,” Dr Hamrosi says.
Professor Nolan hopes the survey will give researchers results that can be used to implement new policies for emergency situations.
“It is important that we improve our community and health care responses in the future so we can better meet the needs of mothers and this survey is what is needed to get that process started,” Professor Nolan says.
Ms Salucci agrees that there is a need for better services for pregnant women and new mothers during emergencies.
“This survey is important because in a crisis we really need priority safe areas for pregnant women where you can take shelter and during the bushfires, we didn’t have that.
“We also need to look into whether the stress and smoke has affected our babies. That is a major concern of mine and I don’t know when I will get any answers.”
Dr Hamrosi is also hopeful that the survey will lead to change in the future.
“I am hopeful the survey results can help develop more concise guidelines around bushfire smoke exposure so that we could provide more accurate advice for mums on how to stay healthy and safe during these times,” she says.
It’s a vision that Rebecca says is vital.
“It is important that we develop policies that are more certain and take into account the vulnerable situation that new mothers are in. The most recent response to the pandemic and bushfires caused us unnecessary stress.
“There also needs to be reliable information out there for mothers about what effects these situations have on babies. I’m not sure when I’ll find out what effect the smoke had on my daughter while I was pregnant or if it did anything at all and that needs to be looked into.”