Tackling inappropriate marketing of milk-substitutes

In November 2016, the United Nation made a statement on the urgency for countries to support, promote, and protect breastfeeding. 

Breastfeeding is essential for the health of children and mothers. It protects the baby from infections and diseases, and helps the cognitive development and intelligence of the infant. However, many concerns rise around the lack of improvements made in increasing exclusive breastfeeding rates globally. 

The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends that mothers exclusively breastfeed their babies for the first 6 months of life and feed them with complementary food up to the first 2 years of age. It has been proven that breastfeeding prevents infections and protects against obesity. Despite the evidence, only the 37% of children in low and middle-income countries are exclusively breastfed. 

Natural milk contains hormones, micronutrients and growth factors. It is natural and with no cost. It is clean and helps with prevention of infections. If it definitely creates positive impacts on maternal and newborn health, why are we still struggling in reaching the best global rates? What is stopping mothers from breastfeeding their babies?

Fear of prejudices, strong cultural inheritance, and lack of support when a small issue or concern on breastfeeding becomes a big problem for a mother in need. But also a dense and well rooted system of interests behind the market of breast-milk substitutes. Inappropriate marketing of breast-milk substitutes and of other food intended for babies is considered to create misleading or lacking information about exclusive breastfeeding. 

Ending inappropriate marketing of breast-milk substitutes has been proclaimed as one of the actions that countries could take to drive progress on exclusive breastfeeding and raise its global rate to 50% before 2025.

The International Code of Marketing for Breast-milk substitutes has been approved since 1981 to address the issue, and was recently updated in 2016. It covers things like the advertising of infant formula, complementary food, feeding bottles, teats, and pacifiers.

It gives disposition on the disseminated information on breastfeeding and milk-substitutes products. It prohibits health workers and facilities to actively promote the use of substitutive products. As of March 2016, 135 out of 194 countries had some form of legal measure in place covering some provisions of the Code. 

What is the legal status of the code and to what extent the Code provisions have been incorporated into the national legal systems?  

In Kenya, the code has been fully integrated into the country's legal system. In 2012, the Parliament passed the Breast Milk Substitutes Regulation and Control committing to adopt recommendations put forward in the WHO International Code.

But still a lot needs to be done to educate mothers. It’s a long way for Kenya to make sure that the benefits and superiority of breastfeeding, as well as the negative effects of breastfeeding of bottle-feeding become well-known.

At the same time, the country has made a clear point in favour of the prohibition of promotion to health workers and facilities of milk-substitutes. And this is far more relevant than anything else: right before or after the delivery, the woman finds herself to trust the people surrounding her; this could make her more vulnerable to some information. This is why more control on who is promoting what is essential. 

Low and middle incomes countries have truly made more efforts towards the implementation of the code: breastfeeding is simply the cheapest and safer way to support the baby. Tanzania  has a more comprehensive and organic adoption of the code.  

Formula milk and other substitutes should not be seen has the enemy to fight though. They can be useful in certain occasions. For example, they can are valuable when factors influence the disposition of a mother to breastfeed.

Disappointingly, in many countries milk-substitutes seem to be the only choice a mother has and their marketing is often misleading, aggressive and inappropriate.

In Nigeria, prohibiting the promotion of formula or milk substitutes through a direct contact with mothers has not been integrated as one of the legal measures. 

Breastfeeding is natural, positive and safe for babies and mothers and it is human right issue that should be protected.

Let’s all take action to achieve the WHO and UNICEF global target of exclusive breastfeeding of 50% by 2025!  

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