By Thin Lei Win
BANGKOK (AlertNet) – Only one third of women are breastfeeding in the Asia-Pacific region compared with almost half of women six years ago, Save the Children said on Monday, noting the sharp drop may be linked to the aggressive marketing of infant formulas.
Breastfeeding fell to 29 percent in 2012 from 45 percent in 2006, the charity said, leaving more children at risk of disease and putting a strain on health services.
Exclusive breastfeeding – meaning no other liquids are fed to a baby for the first six months of its life – significantly reduces national health costs and helps prevent malnutrition, UNICEF, the United Nations’ children agency, says.
A child who is breastfed for six months is also 15 times less likely to die from killer diseases like pneumonia and diarrhea, which remain the main causes of infant mortality, according to Save the Children. The charity says 830,000 babies could be saved globally each year if new mothers around the world breastfed immediately after giving birth.
But countries such as India, China, Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam “have made no progress on improving exclusive breastfeeding, despite having some of the highest burdens of child mortality,” said the report.
In 2011, infant mortality in the Asia-Pacific region was 32 deaths per 1,000 live births.
These countries of Asia Pacific, together with Pakistan and Bangladesh, account for more than half of the world’s children who are not exclusively breastfed.
The region “is the biggest cause for concern” in the battle to save lives through breastfeeding, the charity said, adding it is also a region where the baby food industry is targeting the largest share of its resources.
Emerging markets such as Asian countries make up 73 percent of the $30 billion global infant nutrition market, which is growing 10 percent annually and dominated by well-known brands such as Nestle and Danone.
Globally, only 37 percent of children are exclusively breastfed for the first six months of life and only 43 percent are breastfed within the first hour of life, said the report.
BARRIERS TO BREASTFEEDING
The report also blamed the low rates of breastfeeding in the Asia-Pacific on lack of maternity legislation, which makes it difficult for working mothers to continue breastfeeding as they return to work, and on a shortage of midwives and other health workers to provide support and information to new mothers.
In addition, a lack of empowerment and education for women have contributed to the sharp decline in breastfeeding numbers, Save the Children said.
The report specifically highlighted what it calls “questionable marketing practices adopted by some breast milk substitute companies,” saying it found evidence of companies violating the International Code of Marketing of Breast?Milk Substitutes.
The code, launched 30 years ago, does not prohibit the sale of formulas, but prevents them being marketed on billboards and posters, blocks the provision of free samples in hospitals and health facilities and prevents the donation of formula milk during natural disasters and emergencies.
Countries in Asia have adopted the code but to varying degrees, an expert from UNICEF told AlertNet last year. It is enforced quite strictly in the Philippines but is voluntary in Thailand.
According to Save the Children, surveys found that 20 percent of health workers in Pakistan received branded gifts from representatives of breast milk substitute companies and 40 percent of mothers in China reported being given formula samples by company representatives or health workers.
The same percentage of mothers also said they had been contacted directly by baby food company representatives and more than three-quarters of these mothers received recommendations of the companies’ products or free samples.
“The industry is not doing enough to ensure compliance with the code,” said the report.
Aid agencies say mothers sometimes spend a lot of money buying formula milk, putting a strain on the family budget and reducing spending on items such as education and healthcare in the belief that formula milk is better for their children than natural milk, which is free.