An increase in stillbirths and babies born underweight was seen during the Spanish Flu pandemic – 100 years before similar trends during Covid, reveals new research.
Two pandemics an entire century apart both led to increases in stillborn babies and those born low in weight, according to the study.
Swiss researchers found babies born during the time of the Spanish flu were more likely to be stillborn or low in weight – similar to those during the Covid pandemic.
The team analyzed data on births in Switzerland around the time of the Spanish Influenza pandemic from 1918 to 1920 and found stillbirths and low birth weights increased both during and after the disease spread throughout the world.
They discovered the spread of the flu – also known as the Great Influenza pandemic – led to a rise in stillbirths and low birth weights in babies.
A similar pattern has also been observed since the beginning of the Covid pandemic in 2020.
The researchers said that though influences on neonatal health are multifactorial, their recent analysis suggests some consistencies across pandemics a whole century apart.
The new study, from the University of Zurich, was based on data collated on mothers and newborns at the Bern Maternity Hospital between two periods: between 1880 to 1900 and from 1914 to 1922.
The pandemic most commonly known by the misleading name of Spanish Flu raged between 1918 and 1920, breaking out towards the end of World War I.
Though the earliest documented case of the disease was recorded in Kansas in the US Midwest, reportage of the disease first emerged in Spain.
Spanish flu led to the infection of up to a third of the world’s population and the deaths of an estimated 50 to 100 million people.
Comparatively, the Covid pandemic, which forced the world to a grinding halt in 2020, is estimated to have attributed to the deaths of nearly seven million people worldwide.
The study, published in the journal PLOS ONE, found the overall rate of babies born before 37 weeks of pregnancy – preterm births – and stillbirths, when a baby is born dead after 24 weeks of pregnancy, decreased between the first (1880-1900) and the second (1914-22) datasets.
However, the researchers found low birth weight incidence significantly increased in 1918 and 1919, when the flu raged.
Mothers heavily exposed to the flu during pregnancy – based on the dates of their pregnancies and infection rates at the time – were additionally found to have a higher risk of their babies being stillborn.
Although the researcher concluded that the data on influenza infection during pregnancy was too imprecise to be conclusive, they indicated there were some consistencies between the Spanish flu pandemic and the Covid-19 pandemic.
They noticed similarities in patterns of increased stillbirths and low birth weights in pregnancies exposed to both the 1918 and the 2020 pandemic.
Study leader Dr. Kaspar Staub said: “Pandemics are increasingly reported to negatively influence pregnancy outcomes.
“Our study is another example showing that the greatest pandemic of the last century was associated with higher risks of stillbirths and low birth weight.
“This urges us to better prepare for future pandemics to mitigate their effects on maternal and neonatal health.”
He added: “Our study shows that the factors influencing neonatal health were similar across the two datasets.
“The data on influenza infection during pregnancy were too imprecise in this source to be conclusive at the individual level.
“However, it appears that ‘Spanish flu’ infections were less associated with lower birth weight and more associated with an increased risk of stillbirth.
“If this trend is confirmed by further studies, it could indicate some consistency across pandemics, as similar patterns have recently been shown for Covid-19.”
Produced in association with SWNS Talker