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Dr Namita Mittal had a pregnancy like no other. It spanned a year of endless crisis. Her twins were conceived as the thick bushfire smoke enveloped Canberra and they were born into the locked-down city. In between came the hail. “It was a lot of stress,” she said. She found the lockdown the hardest to cope with. When the couple’s daughter was born 11years ago, Dr Mittal’s mother was there to help but this time, with the twins, the lockdown kept her mother in India. “When my daughter was born my mum came, so I had no experience of how to handle everything myself,” Dr Mittal said. “Recovering from a cesarean section with two newborns and one child doing school from home, I was really anxious having to do this without my mum.” Dr Mittal is a pathologist at Canberra Hospital. She kept working there when she was pregnant during the lockdown because as a health worker she was absolutely needed. Her husband Tarun is also a doctor there. Dr Mittal’s experience of heightened stress is only one example from a comprehensive study being done by the Australian National University, the universities of Canberra and Wollongong and the health services of the ACT and New South Wales. The researchers have found that two thirds of pregnant women and new mothers in the ACT and south-east NSW were “severely exposed to bushfire smoke in our recent summer”. And nearly nine in 10 isolated themselves and their families in the virus lockdowns which followed. One of the lessons is that special care needs to be taken of pregnant women in those kinds of emergencies, according to researcher Dr Amita Bansal of the ANU College of Health and Medicine. “A lot of women were stressed,” she said, “and stress could be detrimental to the growth and development of the baby.” The study will look at both the physical and the mental effects on both the babies and the mothers. It will follow them over decades. Dr Bansal thinks priority should be given to pregnant women in future bushfire evacuations and also in coronavirus lockdowns. Just as there were special shopping hours for old people in the early days of the epidemic, there should be special shopping hours for pregnant women and new mothers, the researcher felt. She thinks women in general and children have been disproportionately hit by the whole series of recent crises. “ACT and south-eastern NSW have had back-to-back crises with almost no time for recovery – bushfires, hailstorm, floods, COVID-19. “In such unprecedented times, our women and children have suffered disproportionately. “Day cares and schools were closed, day to day activities and healthcare services were disrupted. In many communities, women had to bear the childcare and home care responsibilities, whilst working from home. “For pregnant women this is even more challenging, as she had to juggle with these responsibilities in addition to her pregnancy.” Christopher Nolan, a professor at the ANU and the leader of the Mother and Child 2020 project, said they were looking for funding to keep the research continuing in the long term. They want more women to get involved. So far, they’ve had responses from 750 women – “They want to tell their story,” Professor Nolan said. But they would like a total of 2800 women – 20 per cent of the births this year in Canberra and surrounding New South Wales. The researchers particularly want more women from minority backgrounds to take part. The survey is available to anyone who was pregnant or had a baby no older than three months on February 1 or became pregnant by April 30, 2020 in Canberra and south-eastern NSW. You can find the survey here.

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