The new study published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health last week joins numerous others, some of which predate the Trump administration, suggesting anti-immigrant rhetoric, policies and the hate crimes they embolden can harm immigrants’ health.
Harvard researchers looked at population information in New York City and found preterm births among Latinas increased from 7.7 percent before Donald Trump became a presidential nominee to 8.2 percent after his inauguration. The increase was most dramatic among Latinas born in Mexico and Central America, whose preterm birth rates rose from 7.3 percent to 8.4 percent.
Babies born preterm, or before 37 weeks of gestation, not only have a higher risk of early death but can suffer from numerous health and developmental problems. And prematurity is the global leading cause of death among children under the age of 5, according to the World Health Organization.
“What’s important here is that this is affecting not only the mothers but the next generation, because when you’re born premature, it increases the risk of infant death, it increases the risk of infant illness and it increases the risk of different kinds of diseases, including cardiovascular diseases, when you get older,” Dr. Nancy Krieger, a professor of social epidemiology and the lead author on the study, told HuffPost.
The study details some of the rhetoric and policies that might have fomented severe stress among Latinas ― beginning with Trump describing immigrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border as drug-carrying criminals and rapists in his first presidential campaign speech in 2015. Since his inauguration, the president and his administration have also pushed for a border wall, separated thousands of children from their parents at the border and intensified deportation and detention efforts.
“When you induce fear, and fear is induced selectively and targeted at groups, those groups can experience lots of different kinds of adverse health outcomes,” Krieger added.
Preterm births can be a result of a variety of factors ― including social and economic characteristics, infection and stress. Dr. Cynthia Gyamfi-Bannerman, co-director of Columbia University’s preterm birth prevention center, told HuffPost that stress is undoubtedly related to preterm birth but that the observational aspect of the study makes it difficult to fully link preterm births to the election itself.
“The issue with preterm birth is that it’s so multi-factorial, with stress being one of about eight pathways that lead to preterm delivery,” Gyamfi-Bannerman said. “But it is very provocative that particularly for certain targeted groups, that their rates went up more sharply than others.”
“It would be fantastic if [researchers] were able to look at other stressors or other factors that put someone at high risk of preterm birth,” she added.
“This is affecting not only the mothers but the next generation.”
Krieger said that while the study does lack data on possible confounding factors, it’s unlikely the risk increases observed are related to social, demographic or medical factors because of the short time frame of observation.
She also said the researchers’ conclusions are supported by past literature on the topic, including a 2017 study that found that babies born to Latinas ― whether citizens or not ― were at higher risk of low birth weight after a 2008 federal immigration raid in Postville, Iowa, (one of the largest single-site federal immigration raids in U.S. history) compared to non-Latina white mothers.
It’s a study that Dr. R. Gabriela Barajas-Gonzalez, an assistant professor in the department of population health at NYU Langone, also cites in a social policy report published last month for which she was the lead author. That report sought to understand how Latino children are affected by immigration enforcement threats and how Latinos overall are experiencing the anti-immigrant climate in the United States as psychological violence.
“I think what is emerging in the [Harvard study] and in several different areas of study is this understanding that the election is bringing with it a feeling of lack of safety for some communities given the way the president communicates and what he communicates,” Barajas-Gonzalez told HuffPost.
“It is possible some of these mothers are burdened by chronic stress and anxiety, inability to sleep and heightened vigilance – all of which are detrimental to health and well-being.”
Barajas-Gonzalez said this constant feeling of uncertainty and anxiety, either for your own safety or for someone you care about, “creates a climate of psychological violence for some people because you’re constantly living it.” This chronic stress is detrimental to Latinas’ health and ultimately to their babies, she said.
“It is possible some of these mothers are burdened by chronic stress and anxiety, inability to sleep and heightened vigilance ― all of which are detrimental to health and well-being,” she added.
Kreiger recommends physicians or nurse practitioners providing care for women at risk of preterm births understand the importance of offering the necessary emotional and social support. But she also said there’s a need for more general awareness about how hate crimes or policies that target certain groups can have adverse effects on health.
“Unjust and unfair behaviors, if they never affected health, are still unjust and unfair,” Kreiger said. “But if they do affect health, we need to understand the full spectrum of consequences.”