UNICEF and WHO argue for policy reforms to curb infant formula use and promote breastfeeding

By Nicola Gordon-Seymour

- Last updated on GMT

UNICEF and WHO argue for policy reforms to curb infant formula use and promote breastfeeding

Related tags: Unicef, WHO, Breastfeeding

The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and World Health Organisation (WHO) are urging global leaders to do more to protect caregivers and healthcare workers in “humanitarian settings” from unethical marketing practices used by the formula industry.

The majority of WHO member states (74%) already legislate for at least some of the provisions in the Code, according to a recent WHO/UNICEF report, but the formula industry is less compliant and often disseminates misleading and scientifically unsubstantiated messages that blatantly violate the Code.

“Techniques employed by the industry are insidious, carefully designed to reach parents even early in pregnancy, and include: unregulated and invasive online targeting; sponsored advice networks and helplines; promotions and free gifts; and practices to influence training and recommendations of health workers,” ​according to a spokesperson.

The Code stipulates that infant formula ‘should not be marketed or distributed in ways that may interfere with the protections and promotion of breastfeeding’, but “unfortunately,voluntary action by the formula industry to end this marketing has been very limited, pointing to the need for strong regulation”​, it adds.

Support priorities

The remarks form part of a joint statement from UNICEF Executive Director, Catherine Russell and WHO Director-General, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, that coincide with World Breastfeeding Week and appeal to industry stakeholders to increase resources to protect, promote and support breastfeeding for vulnerable families in crisis and prevent severe food insecurity.

They assert that governments need to prioritise family-friendly policies and programmes that provide mothers with “the time, space and support​” to breastfeed – and particularly families in fragile and food deprived environments.

Furthermore, global strategies should fully adopt and implement the International Code of Marketing of Breast-Milk Substitutes framework that stipulates “infant formula should not be marketed or distributed in ways that may interfere with the protection and promotion of breastfeeding​”.

First defence

Breastfeeding is the ‘first defence’ against childhood illness, but fewer than half of all new-borns are breastfed in the first hour, leaving them exposed to disease and death. In addition, only 44% are exclusively fed breast milk in the first six months, which falls short of World Health Assembly targets for 50% by 2025.

Access to adequate healthcare and quality counselling to encourage and support breastfeeding, as well as paid maternity leave in line with international standards, would help guarantee a “safe, nutritious, and accessible food source​” for infants in emergency situations, such as those faced by communities in Afghanistan, Ukraine, Yemen, the Horn of Africa, and the Sahel, where approximately 27 million children are affected by food poverty and poor diets.

As such, ​policy change “is more important than ever, not just for protecting our planet as the ultimate natural, sustainable, first food system, but also for the survival, growth and development of millions of infants,” ​the organisations say.

Investment case

A joint investment case demonstrates that breastfeeding programmes, such as those proposed, can actually save governments money, and potentially achieve returns of €34 ($35) for every dollar spent.

“By investing €561m ($570m) a year for the next 10 years, governments, donors and partners can help raise the rate of exclusive breastfeeding to at least 50%. This investment translates to just €4.62 ($4.70) per newborn.”

Policy and programme priorities are outlined in a joint ‘Call to Action’ on breastfeeding, which details key initiatives to help increase breastfeeding numbers and establish sustainable support for both infants and mothers.

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