Pregnancy and Air Pollution: Health Experts Warn of Increased Risk of Autism in Babies

Pregnancy and Air Pollution: Health Experts Warn of Increased Risk of Autism in Babies
Pregnancy and Air Pollution: Health Experts Warn of Increased Risk of Autism in Babies

By Wonder Ami Hagan

Africa-Press – Tanzania. After giving birth to two healthy boys, it never crossed Mary Amoah Kuffour’s mind that her only daughter could have a medical condition.

Nana Yaa began exhibiting unusual behaviour at the young age of three. She barely spoke and would flap her hands in a strange ritual when frustrated.

Year after year, Mary tried to find explanations for her daughter’s behavior. When Nana Yaa turned six, doctors finally broke the news to her mother: Nana Yaa had autism.

Autism is a medical condition that affects brain development and cognitive abilities. It runs on a spectrum from mild to severe and affects one in every hundred children according to the World Health Organisation. The condition has no known cause but, sadly, in Ghana like many parts of the world, children with autism are often tagged as “spiritual children” or products of witchcraft.

“It comes as a shock, especially when you ask if there’s something you could do. Do they have any medications? Because you don’t see any visible signs on the child to say that he or she has any form of disability and so for this to be termed as a disability it’s shocking,” says Mary. “When you ask and they tell you there’s no cure, nobody wants to hear that.”

Afi Antonio, founder of the Afi Antonio Foundation which works with children with autism, is working hard to break that stigma. Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is one of a range of neurological disorders that impact one in every ten children, but the level of awareness is low in many parts of the world including Ghana.

“When I started, some people were like, ‘Afi, you are yet to have children so be careful associating with these children so you don’t have a child like that,’” recalls Antonio. “Which is really sad that people will even think that way because autism is not contagious. A lot also say that they are cursed children. As at now, we still have people who kill their children when they are born with these conditions.”

Most of those, like Nana Yaa, who benefit from early intervention, go on to live full and happy lives. Indeed some traits of ASD have been connected to genius. Some of the world’s most brilliant thinkers have autism and many experts believe that acclaimed scholars such as Albert Einstein and Isaac Newton had ASD.

“Many of them will do well, it depends on what you do for them especially early on in life. If they get the therapy early, get all the support early, they are able to do generally well and become productive adults,” says Dr. Hilda Mantebea Boye, a childcare specialist at the Korle Bu Teaching Hospital.

Though there is no clear cause for autism, researchers in the U.S. and Sweden have found a link between air pollution exposure during pregnancy and an increased risk of the condition in babies.

“During the first trimester, certain environmental exposures affect various parts of the baby’s formation,” says Dr. Promise Sefogah, an Obstetrician-Gynecologist at the Shape Healthcare Medical Center.

“When the woman gets exposed to pollutants in the air, they tend to affect the brain-related development or the nervous system development of the baby and that can lead to a lot of brain-related abnormalities in the baby.”

Beyond affecting intellectual abilities, children with autism can be more vulnerable to air pollution, causing allergies and sensory problems. Health experts say air pollution, particularly from activities like open burning and vehicular emissions, also exposes children to the risk of other serious cognitive and brain development problems.

Despite efforts by the government of Ghana to tackle air pollution and improve air quality in the country, the problem is getting worse. Accra is Africa’s fastest growing city and with the rapid increase in population has come an increase in open burning, transport and factory emissions – the key drivers of poor air quality. In places like Agbogbloshie, one of Ghana’s biggest informal settlements, pollution from open-air burning activities is rife.

The burning of waste at the landfill site near the market, and the use of tyres by scrap scavengers to burn electronic waste products, leave residents and traders constantly inhaling dirty air that leaves them sick.

“My children complain about the smoke in this area. They are not happy,” says Fati Fuseini, a trader at Agbogbloshie market with three young children. “They are not able to stay and sleep over when they come here, they leave for their father’s place.”

Government has put in place plans to embark on public awareness campaigns in Agbogbloshie, to provide a drop-off point for discarding waste electronics, and promote the separation of plastics to facilitate recycling as part of efforts to tackle the situation.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other stakeholders are also monitoring air quality in highly polluted areas including Agbogloshie to alert Ghanaians about the dangerous levels of pollution on a daily basis. They are reviewing air quality management regulations and working on a plan to tackle road transport pollution, particularly from minibuses, known as trotros, in the capital, Accra.

While government does its part, health experts say highly polluted places are a no-go area for pregnant women but if they must, they should always wear nose masks to protect themselves and their babies from the risks of air pollution.

Source: 3News

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