World Health Officials Stunned By US Resistance To Breast Feeding

Photo: PublicDomainPictures via Pixabay, CC0

At the World Health Assembly which took place this spring, a resolution intended to encourage the use of breast feeding over formula was expected to be quickly approved by many delegates from nations around the world. However, according to reports from United Nations delegates and the New York Times, the United States delegates pushed back against the resolution vociferously.

The resolution to encourage mothers to breastfeed their children was put forward by health advocates, who based the resolution on decades of research and say that a mother’s milk is the healthiest thing for a child to consume. The resolution also attempted to put limits on misleading marketing and inaccurate claims made about breast milk substitute formulas.

The US Delegation’s Actions

According to anonymous delegates from countries around the world, the delegation from the United States argued against the resolution during deliberations, attempting to have language that would pressure governments to support and promote breastfeeding removed. US delegates also allegedly attempted to have verbiage calling on policymakers to crack down on misleading marketing of food products that could potentially harm young children removed. US delegates allegedly threatened to withdraw military aid and implement punishing trade policies to various nations if the Ecuadorian government (who were introducing the measure) did not back down.

The New York Times states that the event was corroborated by over a dozen participants from various countries who requested anonymity. According to officials from the US, Mexico and Uruguay, advocates of the health resolution tried to find another country to sponsor it, yet most of the nations approached were poor nations across Latin America and Africa who shied away, likely due to fears over possible American retaliation.

Photo: Smmchapman via Wikimedia Commons, CC 3.0

Patti Rundall, director of policy at the group Baby Milk Action, a British health advocacy group, says that the situation was astonishing, leaving them “appalled and also saddened”.

“What happened was tantamount to blackmail, with the U.S. holding the world hostage and trying to overturn nearly 40 years of consensus on best way to protect infant and young child health,” said Rundall.

While as of this time the State Department has yet to issue a statement, a statement was released by the Department of Health and Human Services, who said that while the HHS disagreed with the wording of the resolution they had no part in the alleged threatening of the Ecuadorian government. The HHS statement explains that the original draft of the resolution “placed unnecessary hurdles for mothers seeking to provide nutrition to their children”, and that since not all women can breastfeed their children, “women should have the choice and access to alternatives for the health of their babies” and that they shouldn’t be stigmatized for using alternative methods of providing nutrition. The HHS spokesman was also anonymous.

Research Regarding Breastfeeding

The body of available research on breastfeeding vs. formula feeding seems to come out in favor of breastfeeding. A study published in the journal Lancet during 2016 found that if the world were to switch to breastfeeding entirely, approximately 800,000 child deaths a year would be prevented. Furthermore, around 300 billion dollars would be saved thanks to reduced health care costs and the improved economic futures of those nursed by their mothers. Research suggests that breast milk is full of antibodies and hormones that help protect children against infectious diseases, in addition to the nutrients that it has.

It has traditionally been difficult for scientists to do the types of research that  could tease out causation from correlation. Double-blind studies are the kind that would give one group of mothers breast milk while another would be given a substitute. However, given the potential harms that could come to the children involved in the study, ethical concerns about running the studies abound. Also of note is that some of the proposed benefits of breastfeeding may be overblown, as recent studies have challenged the idea that breastfeeding can positively impact IQ scores.

Despite this, the majority of research done on breastfeeding, as collected by the World Health Organization, suggests that it confers both long term and short term health benefits to both mothers and infants. It may help reduce instances of chronic diseases like hypertensions, cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Elisabeth Sterken, the director of Canada’s Infant Feeding Action Coalition, explains that over four decades of research have found breastfeeding to be healthy for both infants and mothers.

Impact And Future Of The US And WHO

The actions of the US delegation seems to be an instance of backing corporate interests, in this case the companies who manufacture infant formula. Lobbyists from the baby food industry were present at the health summit, which took place in Geneva, though health advocates say they witnessed no outward attempts by the lobbyists to influence the actions of the US delegation. Despite this, the Trump administration has more than once sided with corporate interests on various public health policies.

At the meeting where the breastfeeding resolution was proposed, US delegates successfully had phrasing supporting taxes on soda removed from files that advised courses of action for countries dealing with rising obesity rates. In addition, recent efforts to change the terms of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) include efforts by US government to limit attempts to put warning labels on sugary benefits and snack food.

Photo: Thorkild Tylleskar via Wikimedia Commons, CC 3.0

At the end of the day, it seems that the attempts by the US delegation to remove specific language from the resolution were mainly unsuccessful, as the resolution has been preserved with most of the original language intact. The US delegation did succeed in having language asking the WHO to give technical support to nations looking to stop “inappropriate promotion of foods” to children and infants removed from the resolution, however.

As for the future of the US relationship with the WHO, US delegates apparently suggested that the country may reduce funding of the WHO. The US government is currently the largest contributor to the WHO, supporting the organization by around $850 million dollars, an amount equal to around 15% of the organization’s budget.

Director of  the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva’s Global Health Centre, Ilona Kickbusch, says that there’s a rising fear that the Trump administration might irreparably damage international health systems like the WHO, which have played key roles in containing the spread of epidemics between borders and in developing policies to deal with rising rates of cardiovascular disease and diabetes in developing nations. Said Kickbusch:

It’s making everyone very nervous, because if you can’t agree on health multilateralism, what kind of multilateralism can you agree on?

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