babies born in 9/11 climate of fear
Roger Dobson and Steven Swinford
Study finds birth weights fell even in Europe after twin
THE shock of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in America led to a drop
in the weight of babies born in western Europe, according to a study
published this week.
Researchers discovered that babies born between three and six months
later were on average nearly 50 grams (1.7 ounces) lighter than
they should have been. They say that the stress and anxiety caused
by the attacks led directly to more underweight babies.
The study, published in the Journal of Psychosomatic Research,
is the latest in a body of work that seeks to quantify the precise
effects distant events can have by creating a climate of fear. Instant
communications means people thousands of miles away may experience
similar symptoms to those actually present.
Professor Gerard Essed, an obstetrician from Maastricht University
who co-authored the report, said: “The impact of 9/11 was
so huge it affected everyone in the world. For these women [in the
Netherlands] the impact was further magnified by the emotions of
pregnancy. It was a very, very clear correlation. We were surprised.”
Previous research conducted in New York showed that women who were
in the World Trade Center on the day of the attacks or near it within
the following three weeks had babies that were on average 120g (4.2oz)
lighter. Doctors have attributed the difference to stress and the
large quantities of dust and debris in the air at the time.
The terrorist attacks also led to an unusually high level of stillbirths
of male foetuses, a phenomenon noted elsewhere during natural disasters
A team from the University of California, Berkeley, which studied
data relating to 700,000 births in New York between 1996 and 2002,
showed that the stress of the Al-Qaeda attacks resulted in the proportion
of baby boys to girls dropping from the usual 1.05:1 to a level
below parity in January 2002.
The Dutch researchers followed 1,885 women who were at least 12
weeks pregnant at the time of the September 11 attacks. They compared
their babies with the offspring of 1,258 women who were pregnant
exactly a year later. They excluded premature babies from the study
and took into account other factors that might affect the babies’
weight such as smoking and the age of the mother.
Babies in the womb on September 11 were 48g (1.7oz) lighter than
those in the later group. The scientists believe the difference
was caused by high levels of cortisol in the mother, a hormone associated
with stress and anxiety.
The hormone, which helps break down and burn off fats, can transfer
from the mother to the foetus, resulting in weight loss. Stress
can also result in loss of appetite and cause the blood vessels
to constrict, reducing the flow of blood to the baby and potentially
Essed said the results were alarming and indicated that the impact
on health of “remote” threats could not simply be dismissed.
“We need to do more to reassure pregnant woman who may be
stressed,” he said. “We need to be telling them that
there are reasons to be confident in their pregnancy.”
The impact of traumatic events on the health of the wider community
has long intrigued medical researchers. In 1942 a study in The Lancet,
the medical journal, examined the health of Londoners who survived
aerial bombardment by the Luftwaffe. According to The Lancet, there
was a 50% rise in the number of Londoners who went on to suffer
from peptic ulcers. A similar phenomenon occurred in 1995 following
the Kobe earthquake in Japan, which killed 5,100.
However, Frank Furedi, a professor of sociology at Kent University,
is sceptical about the true impact of catastrophes on people who
are not directly caught up in them.
Furedi, who describes the syndrome as “culturally induced
trauma”, said: “If enough people tell you that you are
pale you may begin to feel there is something wrong with you.”
published in Sunday Times, 12 November 2006