Breast Milk Substitutes; WHO Wants Stricter Laws

  • Products that function as breast-milk substitutes should not be promoted.
  • Improving breast feeding practices could save more than 820000 lives per year.
  • But two out of three infants worldwide don’t get that standard of nourishment.
  • The WHO recommends that babies be fed breast milk exclusively for the first six months of life.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has come up with stricter recommendations to encourage breast feeding of young children.

WHO, UNICEF and the International Baby Food Action Network says that breastfed children perform better on intelligence tests, less likely to be obese and less prone to diabetes later in life.

The UN agency has suggested all its member countries to frame stringent law and not allow any product marketed as a breast milk substitute.

Besides, any product for infants and young children should carry messages highlighting the importance of continued breast feeding for up to two years.

Breast is best

The recommendations, made by WHO’s secretariat, will be placed in its upcoming 69th World Health Assembly, the highest decision making body of WHO.

The health assembly will begin next week from May 23-28 in Geneva to discuss new health related issues and review the progress of the goals set by it last year.

Makers of infant formulas are increasingly buying into the support of healthworkers and sponsoring conferences to exhibit and push their products.

Formula makers are accused of flooding markets with brands and filling airtime with advertising.

They are also aggressively pushing follow-up formula for babies anywhere up to six months with claims of stronger protection and outcome.

But the science behind it points to the foods being nutritionally inferior to breast milk, containing added sugars and fats that contribute to baby obesity.

Though India has a national law – Infant Milk Substitutes Feeding Bottles, and Infant Foods (Regulation of Production, Supply and Distribution) Act – the recommendations by the WHO secretariat may push the government to make it more stringent with increased restrictions on sales of milk substitutes.

The UN agency stated breast-milk substitute should be understood to include any milks (or products that could be used to replace milk, such as fortified soy milk), in either liquid or powdered form, that are specifically marketed for feeding infants and young children up to the age of three years (including follow-up formula and growing-up milks).

According to WHO estimates, the breast-milk substitute business is a big one, with annual sales amounting to almost $45 billion worldwide. This is projected to rise by over 55% to $70 billion by 2019.

Latest official data released under the fourth National Family Health Survey for 15 states show breastfeeding in India is at 47.7%, whereas exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of child is only little higher at 57.5%.

Experts say despite a law curbing sale of substitutes, India has not shown much improvement in breastfeeding because of awareness created by the government.

Up to 800 million are not covered by maternity protection, including flexible working hours, paid maternity leave, and workplace solutions that help women combine breastfeeding, home and work life.