The economic crisis that began in 2007 hit Spain harder than many countries. Fifty percent unemployment amongst the young (and 24% overall) is one result. Seemingly irreversible cuts to public services like health is another. But the crisis has also had another, even more chilling effect: Spanish babies are being born smaller.
The figures appear in a new study published in the Annals of Human Biology. The study analyzed data from almost 3 million births in Spain between 2003 and 2012 and found a "significant increase in the prevalence of underweight at birth from 2008" onwards.
Birthweight is important because it affects an individual's health for their entire life. Here the study's authors tell us why:
Adverse living conditions of pregnant women, both material and psychological, have enduring consequences on foetal growth as well as persisting and long-term consequences later in life due to permanent changes in utero in the vascular, metabolic and endocrine systems.
The sudden drop in birthweight, then, could be catastrophic for a whole generation. And the drop was sudden indeed. Underweight (defined as under 2.5kg or 5.5 pounds) births in 2007-8 were four times higher than in 2006-7. "Prevalence of underweight [babies] at birth increased 12.87% between 2007 and 2008 alone," says the study.
The study posits two causes for the drop in birthweight. One is that the crisis has changed the socio-demographic profile of mothers. That is, better-educated, relatively better-off women are having fewer babies, which increases the proportion of babies born to "mothers at higher gestational or obstetrical risk." The second is more straightforward: poorer living conditions and stress throughout the pregnancy directly affect the fetus.
The study's figures have real-world experience to back them up:
Spanish health care professionals perceived that quality of health care had become worse and health outcomes had deteriorated since the beginning of the crisis as a result of austerity measures and restrictions introduced on the universal coverage and free access principles.
The cuts have been brutal. Between 2009 and 2013, say official figures, public health budgets were cut 16.5%, or around $11.4 billion.
What's the answer? After all, full economic recovery doesn't seem to be happening. The best option could be direct targeting of pregnant mothers, helping them to stay healthy and nourished throughout pregnancy. "By taking steps to promote optimal fetal development," says the study, "it should be possible to improve outcomes not just for early survival but also for later survival, morbidity and other measures of human capital, which in turn, will lead to improved social and economic health and wellbeing."
Save the babies, and the future will save itself.