WHO questions UK institution over continued financial link to breast milk substitute industry

By Emma Jane Cash

- Last updated on GMT

© iStock/Pilin Petunyia
© iStock/Pilin Petunyia

Related tags: Infant, Breastfeeding

Experts from the World Health Organisation (WHO) have criticised the UK's Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health for its decision to continue accepting funding from breast milk substitute (BMS) manufacturers and setting an “unfortunate precedent for other national paediatric associations”.

A group of experts from the WHO Department of Maternal, Newborn, Child and Adolescent Health questioned the college’s impartiality on the subject of breast milk substitutes (BMS) - warning that the decision to continue accepting funding from industry contravenes the aim of the International Code of Marketing of Breast Milk Substitutes.

Writing in The Lancet​, Dr Anthony Costello and colleagues from the WHO warned that a decision to receive funding from manufacturers of infant formula and breast milk substitutes “creates clear competing interests”.

“In direct violation”

They said the WHO Guidance on Ending Inappropriate Promotion of Foods for Infants and Young Children also prohibits this type of funding.

The guidance states “health professional associations should not…accept equipment or services from companies that market food for infants and young children, accept gifts or incentives from such companies” ​or “allow such companies to sponsor meetings of health professionals and scientific meetings”.

The article thus concludes that the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (​RCPCH) decision is “in direct violation”​ of the WHO’s guidance.

In defence of the decision, RCPCH has said it has necessary safe guards in place and will conduct an internal due diligence process regarding potential donors.

However, Costello and colleagues said “we firmly believe that health professional associations are not in a position, nor are they qualified, to assess and determine which companies comply with international policy and guidance documents related to the International Code”.

Regulation and funding

According to The Lancet​, the breast milk substitutes will be worth €65.7 billion ($70 bn) by 2019, whereas improving breastfeeding practices would saves the lives of an estimated 820,000 children under the age of five each year.

Between 1979 and 1981 WHO, UNICEF, nongovernmental organisations, infant food industry and experts on infant feeding developed the code to restrict the marketing of breast-milk substitutes and protect breastfeeding.

The code covers breast-milk substitutes, feeding bottles and teats aimed at young children.

WHO says the code must be followed by all manufacturers and distributors of BMS in order to ensure the promotion and protection of breastfeeding, which has been praised by the NHS and WHO has the best food available to infants.

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