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May 29, 2020

‘Countries failing to stop harmful marketing of formula milk’

Islamabad

May 29, 2020

Islamabad : Despite efforts to stop the harmful promotion of breast-milk substitutes, countries are still falling short in protecting parents from misleading information, reveals a new report by the World Health Organisation, the United Nations Children's Fund, and the International Baby Food Action Network.

According to the report, the coronavirus pandemic highlights the need for stronger legislation to protect families from false claims about the safety of breast-milk substitutes or aggressive marketing practices.

“Breast milk saves children’s lives as it provides antibodies that give babies a healthy boost and protect them against many childhood illnesses.”

The WHO and Unicef encouraged women to continue to breastfeed children even if they had confirmed or suspected COVID-19.

According to them, while researchers continue to test breast milk from mothers with confirmed or suspected coronavirus, the current evidence indicate that it is unlikely that COVID-19 would be transmitted through breastfeeding or by giving breast milk that has been expressed by a mother who is confirmed or suspected to have COVID-19.

“The numerous benefits of breastfeeding substantially outweigh the potential risks of illness associated with the virus. It is not safer to give infant formula milk,” said the report.

According to it, of the 194 countries analysed, 136 have in place some form of legal measure related to the International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes and subsequent resolutions adopted by the World Health Assembly (the Code). Attention to the Code is growing, as 44 countries have strengthened their regulations on marketing over the past two years. However, the legal restrictions in most countries do not fully cover marketing that occurs in health facilities.

The report said only 79 countries prohibited the promotion of breast-milk substitutes in health facilities, and only 51 had provisions that prohibited the distribution of free or low-cost supplies within the health care system.

It added that only 19 countries had banned the sponsorship of scientific and health professional association meetings by manufacturers of breast-milk substitutes, which included infant formula, follow-up formula, and growing up milks marketed for use by infants and children up to 36 months old.

Dr Francesco Branca, director at the WHO’s Department of Nutrition and Food Safety, said the aggressive marketing of breast-milk substitutes, especially through health professionals that parents trust for nutrition and health advice, was a major barrier to improving new-born and child health worldwide.

“Health care systems must act to boost parent’s confidence in breastfeeding without industry influence so that children don’t miss out on its lifesaving benefits.”

In the report, the WHO and UNICEF recommended that babies be fed nothing but breast milk for their first six months, after which they should continue breastfeeding – as well as eating other nutritious and safe foods – until two years of age or beyond.

“The babies who are exclusively breastfed are 14 times less likely to die than babies who are not breastfed. However, today, only 41% of infants 0–6 months old are exclusively breastfed, a rate WHO member states have committed to increasing to at least 50% by 2025. Inappropriate marketing of breast-milk substitutes continues to undermine efforts to improve breastfeeding rates and the COVID-19 crisis is intensifying the threat.”

The WHO and UNICEF warned that health care services aimed at supporting mothers to breastfeed, including counselling and skilled lactation support, were strained as a result of the COVID-19 crisis.

They said infection prevention measures such as physical distancing made it difficult for community counselling and mother-to-mother support services to continue leaving an opening for the breast-milk substitute industry to capitalise on the crisis, and diminish confidence in breastfeeding.

Dr Victor Aguayo, UNICEF’s Chief of Nutrition, said as the COVID-19 pandemic progressed, health workers were being diverted to the response and health systems were overstretched.

He added that at such time, breastfeeding could protect the lives of millions of children, but new mothers couldn't do it without the support of health providers.

“We must, more than ever, step up efforts to ensure that every mother and family receive the guidance and support they need from a trained health care worker to breastfeed their children, right from birth, everywhere.”

Patti Rundall of IBFAN’s Global Council said the fear of COVID-19 transmission was eclipsing the importance of breastfeeding – and in too many countries mothers and babies were being separated at birth – making breastfeeding and skin to skin contact difficult if not impossible.

“All that is on the basis of no evidence. Meanwhile, the baby food industry is exploiting fears of infection, promoting and distributing free formula and misleading advice – claiming that the donations are humanitarian and that they are trustworthy partners.”

The WHO and UNICEF called on governments to urgently strengthen legislation on the Code, which bans all forms of promotion of breast-milk substitutes, during the COVID-19 pandemic.