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Promotion of breast milk substitutes will erode gains

By Clifford Akumu
Monday, August 10th, 2020
Kepha Nyanumba, a consultant nutritionist Photo/PD/Clifford Akumu
In summary

For babies to grow healthy and strong,  they should be fed on breast milk for six months without introducing other foods, including water.

However, a new report by the World Health Organisation (WHO), Unicef and the International Baby Food Action Network reveals that despite efforts to stop harmful marketing of breast-milk substitutes, countries are still falling short in protecting parents from misleading information.

The report, Marketing of breastmilk substitutes: National implementation of the International Code – Status report 2020, provides updated information on status of countries implementation, including measures that have been enacted.

Of the 194 countries analysed including Kenya, 136 have in place some form of legal measure in line with the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes and subsequent resolutions adopted by the World Health Assembly (the Code).

Attention to the Code is growing, as 44 countries have strengthened regulations on marketing over the past two years.

Kenya scored eight out of 10 on monitoring and enforcement of legal measures.

However, only 79 countries prohibit promotion of breastmilk substitutes in health facilities, and only 51 have provisions that prohibit distribution of free or low-cost supplies within the healthcare system.

“It is actually a very exciting report that has come at the right time. It serves to remind us not to slide back on the gains we have made on exclusive breastfeeding as a country,” said Kepha Nyanumba, a paediatric nutritionist.

Kenya’s exclusive breastfeeding rates have improved over the years, thanks to promotion, protection and support for breastfeeding by the Ministry of Health and other stakeholders.

“As a country, this is a remarkable improvement from as low as 23 per cent back in 1989.

We need to double our efforts to score higher and indirectly reduce infant and child mortality rates,” said Nyanumba.

The report comes on the backdrop of World Breastfeeding week under the theme; Supporting breastfeeding for a healthier planet and a stubborn Covid-19 pandemic that continues to ravage the country’s health system.

Covid-19 pandemic highlights the need for stronger legislation to protect families from false claims about the safety of breastmilk substitutes or aggressive marketing practices. 

“We know breast milk is the perfect food for children before six months. It contains the right balance of energy, enzymes and antibodies that play a key role of boosting the immune functions and systems of children,” Nyanumba told People Daily.

No Covid-19 risk

The agencies encourage women to continue to breastfeed during the Covid-19 pandemic, even if they have confirmed or suspected the disease. 

While researchers continue to test breastmilk from mothers with confirmed or suspected Covid-19, current evidence indicate that it is unlikely that the disease would be transmitted through breastfeeding or by giving breastmilk that has been expressed by a mother confirmed or suspected to have the disease.

According to a study published recently in The Lancet Child and Adolescent Health, mothers infected with Covid-19 were found to be unlikely to pass the infection to their newborns when appropriate health precautions are taken.

 “The fear that breastfeeding mothers might have at this point is the fact that Covid-19 can be passed through the breastmilk, but there is no research hence they should continue breastfeeding,” Nyanumba added.