ECU researchers use model to examine link between hurricanes, preterm births

As the Atlantic Coast prepares for another hurricane season, an old wives’ tale passed down through generations warns that when major storms make landfall, it’s not just the storm surge you should worry about — but a surge in births.

East Carolina University associate professor Michelle Oyen and undergraduate researcher Mackenzie Wheeler’s recent research paper, appearing in Frontiers in Physiology’s special issue on the role of fetal membranes in pregnancy and birth, explores this phenomenon.

The College of Engineering and Technology researchers used a model previously created by Oyen to develop a new mechanism that explains the potential correlation of premature births during weather-related events with large drops in barometric pressure.

The pair hypothesize that severe weather events that cause an extreme drop in pressure, like hurricanes or bomb cyclones, lead to premature fetal membrane rupture, also known as PROM, which causes preterm birth.

Anecdotal evidence has shown that these weather events may affect pregnancies, but the relationship between a drop in pressure and PROM has been brushed off as a coincidence by some in the medical community.

“We used a simple model to examine the stresses in the membrane as a function of changes in external barometric pressure,” Oyen said. “The reason this model is interesting is that it provides a mechanism by which this external change might be related to preterm birth. The anecdotal evidence that women are more likely to give birth early has been circulating for many years. Only recently has some serious work been done to try and validate this anecdotal evidence with data. Our model provides a mechanism to test that data.”

The pair’s model examines the strength of an expectant mother’s fetal membrane against  external stress. Stress can rise during major drops of barometric pressure, like those experienced during Category 4 or 5 hurricanes.

“The model we used showed how the fetal membrane’s modeled stress varies depending on the barometric pressure and its gestational age,” Wheeler said. “When the stress is greater because of a storm with lower barometric pressure, this stress can exceed the membrane’s strength prior to term gestation, resulting in a preterm birth.”

After 30 weeks, the strength of a mother’s fetal membrane begins to decrease. When its strength is exceeded by external stress, it ruptures, causing premature birth. Late term pregnancies are often affected because the membrane is more likely to be exposed to ambient conditions due to the mother’s dilated cervix and loss of mucus plug.

The 2020 Atlantic hurricane season officially began June 1.


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Contact: Dr. Michelle Oyen, associate professor of biomedical engineering,, 434-284-1834