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WHO, UNICEF highlight importance of breastfeeding

-First vaccine for babies

-Reduces women’s risk of diabetes, stroke, cancer 

By Alhaji Haruna Sani

A new report from WHO and UNICEF has indicated that breastfeeding within the first hour of birth followed by exclusive breastfeeding for six months and continued breastfeeding for up to two years or beyond acts as babies’ first vaccine, protecting them against many common childhood illnesses.

The report, which was launched on February 22, states that breastfeeding also reduces women’s future risk of diabetes, obesity and some forms of cancer.

“It also offers a powerful line of defense against all forms of child malnutrition, including wasting and obesity,” the report states.

It reveals that only 44 per cent of babies less than 6 months old are exclusively breastfed, but cited that global breastfeeding rates have increased very little in the past two decades, while sales of formula milk have more than doubled in roughly the same time.

The report indicated that more than half of parents and pregnant women (51 per cent) surveyed for WHO/UNICEF have been targeted with marketing from formula milk companies, much of which is in breach of international standards on infant feeding practices.

 Alarmingly, the report notes that a large number of health workers in all countries had been approached by the baby feeding industry to influence their recommendations to new mothers through promotional gifts, free samples, funding for research, paid meetings, events and conferences, and even commissions from sales, directly impacting parents’ feeding choices.  

The new report details exploitative practices employed by $55 billion formula industry, compromising child nutrition, violating international commitments.
 
The report draws on interviews with parents, pregnant women and health workers in eight countries. It uncovers systematic and unethical marketing strategies used by the formula milk industry which now worth a staggering US$55 billion to influence parents’ infant feeding decisions.The report establishes that industry marketing techniques include unregulated and invasive online targeting; sponsored advice networks and helplines; promotions and free gifts; and practices to influence training and recommendations among health workers.

The report reveals that the messages parents and health workers receive are often misleading, scientifically unsubstantiated, and violate the International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes

Despite a landmark public health agreement on code of marketing of Breast-Bilk substitutes passed by the World Health Assembly in 1981 to protect mothers from aggressive marketing practices by the baby food industry, the report shows very clearly that formula milk marketing remains unacceptably pervasive, misleading and aggressive.

Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General said regulations on exploitative marketing must be urgently adopted and enforced to protect children’s health.

According to the report – which surveyed 8,500 parents and pregnant women, and 300 health workers in cities across Bangladesh, China, Mexico, Morocco, Nigeria, South Africa, the United Kingdom and Viet Nam, exposure to formula milk marketing reaches 84 per cent of all women surveyed in the United Kingdom; 92 per cent of women surveyed in Viet Nam and 97 per cent of women surveyed in China, increasing their likelihood of choosing formula feeding.

It is stated in the report that across all countries included in the survey; women expressed a strong desire to breastfeed exclusively, ranging from 49 per cent of women in Morocco to 98 per cent in Bangladesh. Yet, the report details how a sustained flow of misleading marketing messages is reinforcing myths about breastfeeding and breast-milk, and undermining women’s confidence in their ability to breastfeed successfully.


“False and misleading messages about formula feeding are a substantial barrier to breastfeeding, which we know is best for babies and mothers,” said UNICEF Executive Director Catherine Russell. “We need robust policies, legislation and investments in breastfeeding to ensure that women are protected from unethical marketing practices have access to the information and support the need to raise their families.”

 
To address the challenges, WHO, UNICEF and partners called on governments, health workers, and the baby food industry to end exploitative formula milk marketing and fully implement and abide by the Code requirements which includes: 
 Passing, monitoring and enforcing laws to prevent the promotion of formula milk, in line with the International Code, including prohibiting nutrition and health claims made by the formula milk industry,

 Investing in policies and programmes to support breastfeeding,

including adequate paid parental leave in line with international standards, and ensuring high quality breastfeeding support,

The UN agencies requested industry to publicly commit to full compliance with the Code and subsequent World Health Assembly resolutions globally and banning health workers from accepting sponsorship from companies that market foods for infants and young children for scholarships, awards, grants, meetings, or events.

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