Whose Interest?

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Breastfeeding may be the single most important intervention that can save the lives both of mothers and infants.  It can drastically reduce stunting, prevent child deaths and could be the most important investment that the government can make.  

But it is also a politically charged issue.   Not only because males continue to ogle at women who breastfeed in public but also because the decision on where, when and how to feed an infant has become fraught with incendiary politics.  

The multi-million milk industry continue to harp on the so-called benefits of processed milk for young children. The inappropriate promotion of foods for infants and young children continue, unabated. 

Bottle feeding has transformed what could otherwise be a detached way of feeding infants and young children into a status symbol by celebrating the capacity of families to spend for the nourishment of their child.  

Who wouldn’t fall prey to it? Especially those who are continued to be grossly misinformed on the benefits of breastfeeding and the lure of bottle-feeding your child, what with the repetitive messaging in the media which counseling and information dissemination efforts by health advocates and workers could not compete with. 

After several years of advocacy  on exclusive breastfeeding, the Milk Code was signed into law in 1986.My daughters came in the midst of the advocacy on the IRR of the Milk Code. 

The three of them–Riezel, Maolen and Nikka were fully breastfed for three years. My mid-child took her pretty time to wean away from breastfeeding and way beyond the required period. 

 But the IRR took several years more and was only approved 18 years after the passage of the law.  Who could even forget the petition of the milk companies through the Pharmaceutical Health Association of the Philippines (PHAP) for the Supreme Court to issue a temporary restraining order against the IRR? Their petition was junked by the high court.

Despite the restrictions under the Milk Code, milk companies continue with their aggressive marketing.  After all, penalties to be imposed on companies are lenient.   Under the IRR, milk companies can be fined as low as P10,000 for its first offense and P1M for the fifth offense. 

Too low, considering the cost of milk advertisement that multinational companies allocate.  For instance, in a six-month period, advertisements could go as high as P2.5B—peanuts, compared to the fine.

This month, the Codex Alimentarius Commission, an intergovernmental body which is the principal organ of the joint FAO/WHO food standards programme that establishes the international standards on food products are reviewing the existing standards and guidelines.

But challenges abound as milk companies continue to lobby and promote their interests.  The Kalusugan ng Mag-Ina (KMI), a member of the Philippine Coalition of Advocates for Nutrition Security (PhilCAN) is pushing for the full consideration to WHO guidelines and recommendations, including the International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes.

KMI Advocacy Officer May Baez said that Code will review both categories of follow-on formula: one for older infants aged 6 to 12 months and one for young children aged 12 to 36 months (often called growing-up milk).

 “However, it looks like the commercial interests of developed countries and the economic interests of manufacturers are currently drowning out the voices of low- and middle-income countries- those most likely to be impacted by changes to breastmilk substitute standards,” she said. 

There is a need for government and the public to push and re-affirm not only the need to promote exclusive breastfeeding up to two years and beyond but also to emphasize optimal complementary feeding practices for children from ages 6-36 months based on internationally-set guidelines.

Where there there is a decline in breast-feeing, it is tied as one of the primary cause of childhood malnutrition.   I would not be surprised considering the need of women to contribute to the household income and the lack of support in the workplace, few children can really be breast fed exclusively until six months.  On the average, studies show that children are breast-fed exclusively for less than two months.

If only the vast majority of babies were exclusively fed breastmilk in their first six months of life – meaning only breastmilk and no other liquids or solids, not even water – it is estimated that the lives of at least 1.2 million children would be saved every year. If children continue to be breastfed up to two years and beyond, the health and development of millions of children would greatly improved.

This requires political will on the part of the government to uphold the best interest of children and stand against the multinational milk companies.  It also requires continuing education for households—women and men to be able to make informed choices and choose the best for children.  

Be informed