Atlantic Cities

Philippines Typhoons Disproportionately Kill Baby Girls

Philippines Typhoons Disproportionately Kill Baby Girls
Reuters

Anybody stuck in a typhoon is in for a bad time. But if you happen to be an infant girl, you're due for an even worse experience, with a heightened risk of death lasting two years after the typhoon passes.

That's the case in the Philippines, at least, according to an analysis of the country's violent weather. Two economists from the Bay Area, Solomon Hsiang at UC Berkeley and Jesse Anttila-Hughes at the University of San Francisco, looked at the past 25 years of typhoons in the Philippines. They found what they call "dramatic increases" in mortality rates for infant girls in the wake of these tree-downing, house-obliterating tempests, according to Berkeley's news center:

The economists found that while officials report roughly 740 deaths on average every year due to typhoon exposure in the Philippines, post-typhoon mortality among baby girls is approximately 15 times higher than that, likely due to the indirect poverty-worsening effects of the storm. Because the Philippines is so hard hit by typhoons every year, the authors estimate that these delayed infant deaths account for approximately 13 percent of the country’s overall infant mortality rate.  

In other words – holy moly. What's to account for this startling finding? The economists begin with the heart-warming assumption that parents are not intentionally allowing their offspring to perish. What they suppose occurs goes something like this: A bad typhoon rips through the land, causing all kinds of windy mayhem and possibly a rampaging storm surge, like this one that rode in on November 8 with the awful Super Typhoon Haiyan:

After the skies clear, the parents have to decide how best to allocate their time and resources to saving their families. Decision-making in this chaotic period can lead to a number of risky propositions for girls. Sometimes, the adults assume their newborns are tougher than they actually are, say the researchers, and allow them to incur levels of neglect they're not physically equipped to handle. They might also feed them different kinds of food than boys or give them different types of care, consciously or not, with potentially fatal results. 

The size of a family matters, too, for girls' survival chances. Facing necessity, many impoverished parents cut back on spending for things like food, healthcare, and education. Meager resources are then the subject of dire competition among the family members, writes Berkeley:

The risk of a baby girl dying after a typhoon doubles if she has older sisters in the home, and the risk doubles again if she has older brothers – suggesting that the competition for resources among siblings may play a key role in these deaths. The researchers did not find a spike in the mortality rates for baby boys, but they uncovered an elevated mortality risk among baby girls that lasts up to two years after a typhoon....

“Infants are more fragile than other family members, and some can’t handle it when families cut back. Their health deteriorates gradually, and then one day, they just don’t pull through,” said Hsiang. “We think that economic factors are key, because roughly half of the baby girls who die weren’t even born or conceived when the various storms hit.”

You can download the economists' 86-page study at the Social Science Research Network; it was published in February but is being publicized by Berkeley now because, well, you know.

Top image: A mother gave birth this to girl born on November 15 while lying on a table in the corner of the city hall in Palo, Leyte, about 9 miles away from devastated Tacloban (Wolfgang Rattay / Reuters)

John Metcalfe is a staff writer at The Atlantic Cities. All posts »

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