Regional GP warns of bushfire smoke's 'serious impact' on mothers and babies

A Border doctor is calling for more to be done to protect pregnant women and the broader community from the “devastating effects” of bushfire.

Albury-based doctor Rebecca McGowan will be presenting evidence to a Senate committee hearing taking place virtually tomorrow on ‘lessons to be learned in relation to the Australian bushfire season 2019-20’.

Dr McGowan said the impact of the smoke that smothered north-east Victoria and southern New South Wales for weeks was already evident from her experience as a medical practitioner and local resident.

“What I did see is these babies being small and the abnormal placentas, and also the severe impact the bushfires had on the mental health of the women I had been looking after,” she said.

She is hoping that the hearing will help put better measures in place for vulnerable people, including pregnant women and new mothers, to be better protected during bushfire periods.

“I have seen the devastating effects of bushfire smoke in particular on my community.

“I want people to understand and know the dangers of bushfire smoke so that we can be better prepared and we can have real information that’s practical in order to help us next time when there’s a bushfire.”

“I have seen a real impact, in particular with smoke on pregnant women.

“I want there to be an understanding how pregnant women are particularly vulnerable to exposure to the air pollution from the bushfire smoke and how this is causing serious problems in pregnancy.”

The long-term impacts of the heavy bushfires smoke have yet to emerge, but it is an issue the Australian National University is closely examining as it works with hundreds of women who were pregnant or had newborns during the heavy bushfire smoke period.

Dr McGowan said the solutions did not have to be overly complex, and included taking a national approach to air quality monitoring and implementing a simple traffic-light warning system for air quality.

“At the end of this hearing what I am hoping is we can progress with some of the recommendations from the bushfire commission.

“One of those is that we need to have national consistency with regards to categories of air quality.

“Living on the border between Victoria and NSW we have different standards of air quality for both sides of the Murray River and this has caused a lot of confusion.”

Better information welcomed by mothers

Francesca Ciantar had a four-day-old daughter when thick bushfire smoke wriggled its way into her home in Indigo Valley in 2019.

She packed up her car and headed for Sydney, driving for at least four hours before the air began to feel a bit clearer.

Despite that, her daughter developed a wheeze.

“It’s kind of ironic because during your pregnancy there’s so much pressure on you; like don’t take a Panadol, sleep on your side, and then it’s like where’s the government care about the air our kids are breathing.

“There’s that much pressure on you to be perfect and then she couldn’t even breathe.”

The smoke has long dispersed from the region but the anxiety lingers.

“Every summer now I am just in total fear that it is going to happen again and that cumulative impact of the smoke inhalation.”

It is a stress that will continue for years as the impacts of the heavy smoke are yet to be determined.

“Like any parent I probably watch my child too much anyway and then I have got that added concern about her early days on earth.”

Ms Ciantar said she would welcome better information to help her make informed decisions about evacuating and the risks to her and her family’s health.

“It’s such a basic thing, it’s beyond political lines and no matter who you are and what you think, you want your kids to be healthy and you want clean air for them to breathe and clean water to drinks.

“Anything the government to do can facilitate that it would be appreciated.”

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