Undermining breastfeeding is a tragedy for the poor

Undermining breastfeeding is a tragedy for the poor
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The World Health Assembly global resolution to promote breastfeeding — and whether the U.S. delegation sided with corporate interests of the $70 billion-dollar baby formula industry in trying to undermine the measure — has been making headlines and spiraling into a frenzy of confusion on the true value of breastfeeding.

When I first heard about the breastfeeding resolution, I had a moment of déjà vu. Back in the 1970s, I worked alongside WHO officials in Switzerland to find processes to build immune systems of children and people in Africa, including breastfeeding as a fundamental aspect to infant health. It was during this time that Nestlé (whose headquarters are based in Switzerland) launched its now-infamous, aggressive marketing plan of baby formula products to African mothers, which resulted in an equally infamous boycott of its products.

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I thought that the misinformation fray regarding the benefits of breastfeeding was settled nearly 50 years ago. But because some statements have emerged about breastfeeding in relation to poverty and malnutrition, I feel compelled to speak out. As someone with over 30 years of experience working in international development, I have seen the unequivocal benefits breastfeeding has had on mothers and children in contexts of malnutrition. Breastfeeding is not a political issue. Rather, a mother feeding her baby breast milk is a health issue that can mean life or death for a child.

 

The research is overwhelming: a mother’s breast milk is the most nutritious food for babies under six months old, providing antibodies that build the immune system and protect against viruses and other pathogens — a benefit that baby formulas have yet to replicate. By implementing universal breastfeeding, 800,000 child deaths a year would be averted. Considering that studies show the first 1,000 days of a child’s life determine the child’s future prospects to perform well in school and lifelong health, the first six months can make a fundamental difference. Breastfeeding lowers a baby's risk of having asthma and allergies. Babies who are breastfed exclusively for the first six months, without anything else, have fewer ear infections, respiratory illnesses, and bouts of diarrhea. Breastfeeding also has physiological and relational benefits, since a mother and child are more strongly bonded in the process.

Contrary to the belief that women need access to formula because of malnutrition and poverty, according to UNICEF, virtually every mother can breastfeed if given appropriate support. Even if a mother is moderately malnourished, she will continue to make high quality milk, better than formula. Financially impoverished families needn’t spend their hard-earned pennies on an inferior product that ends up creating unnecessary economic hardship, potential health problems, and perpetuates wives’ tales that seed generations of cultural misinformation. Any promotion of baby formula as a choice over breast milk undermines efforts to lift the poor out of poverty.

In addition, access to safe drinking water is critically limited or nonexistent in many developing countries. Because infant formula needs to be mixed with water, it increases exposure to water-borne diseases. In fact, diarrhea from dirty water is a leading cause of death, accounting for approximately 8 percent of deaths among children under five. That’s 1,300 young children each day.

Breastfeeding education is a core element of our health programs in Latin America and Africa. Breastfeeding best practices, how often to do it, when to introduce solid food, and how to monitor cues for when a baby is hungry are critical. Breastfeeding is a fundamental and cost-effective pathway to promoting healthy child nutrition and reducing infant mortality rates.

The health wonders of breastfeeding are a part of the life-giving beauty of motherhood. It’s critical that anyone engaged in global health and development continue investing in breastfeeding education and sustainable safe drinking water, hygiene, and sanitation infrastructure.

I’m heartened by bipartisan support in the House and Senate. House appropriators recently supported an additional $20 million for nutrition-specific programming — like promoting breastfeeding — as a part of USAID’s poverty-fighting programs, an important FH partner. Senate appropriators also included an extra $10 million in funding for fiscal year 2019.

The solution to malnutrition and poverty isn't baby formula. Let’s make sure the importance of breastfeeding and its overwhelming health benefits is not a battle we’re still fighting.  

Gary Edmonds is the President and CEO of Food for the Hungry, an international relief and development organization seeking to end all forms of human poverty in more than 20 countries.