Breastfeeding: The Ultimate "Natural Vaccine"

In light of new research, Action Against Hunger calls for stronger regulation of infant formula industry marketing practices

Undernutrition contributes to the deaths of more than three million children under age five each year. But according to a new two-part report published by leading medical journal The Lancet, one simple intervention could prevent an estimated 823,000 child deaths every year.

What is this powerhouse solution? Breastfeeding. The new Lancet research, which is the most comprehensive analysis of breastfeeding studies ever done, found that children who are breastfed "for longer" have higher IQs, lower death rates, and less risk of infection than children who are breastfed for shorter periods, or not at all.

However, the study also found that women worldwide, especially working mothers, are not getting adequate support to start, or continue, breastfeeding—and actually face daily barriers in doing so. 

Action Against Hunger advocates strongly for promotion and support of breastfeeding to advance maternal, newborn, and child health. In light of this groundbreaking new research, we also call for appropriate regulation of the infant formula industry, whose aggressive promotional practices may be harmful to the health of infants in developing countries.

A lifesaving practice, often neglected

For optimal health outcomes, the World Health Organization recommends that babies be exclusively breastfed until the age of six months—followed by partial practice until children turn two. But in low- and middle-income countries, only 37 percent of children younger than 6 months of age are exclusively breastfed.

According to The Lancet, in developing countries, the risk of death for infants who are exclusively breastfed is eight times lower. Overwhelming evidence also shows that breastfeeding protects against the two leading causes of death among children under five: diarrhea and respiratory infections such as pneumonia. The use of "breast milk substitutes" can actually introduce health risks in developing countries, as many people lack the safe, clean water needed to prepare them.

Promoting breastfeeding and healthy infant and young child care practices are at the heart of Action Against Hunger's approach to preventing and treating undernutrition in humanitarian emergencies and in more stable contexts. We prioritize breastfeeding promotion programs in areas that have high rates of undernutrition.

For example, we are currently working with Syrian refugees in Lebanon to offer psychosocial support and "safe spaces" where mothers and babies can bond. The stress mothers suffer in an emergency situation can affect their ability to breastfeed. In these safe spaces, we provide counseling to help them cope with trauma, and nutrition advice, such as encouraging mothers to avoid giving their infants tea, water, and sugar.

A need for increased regulation

Another key finding from The Lancet centered around marketing practices utilized by the $45 billion breast milk substitutes industry. The journal cited instances of companies bypassing or regularly violating national and international laws that govern the marketing industry. Just recently, a report by the World Index of Access to Food found the highest number of cases of non-compliance by Abbott in Vietnam, followed by a large number by both Danone and Nestle Indonesia. The report cited practices such as distributing samples in maternity wards, displaying brochures and posters in health facilities, false advertising claims, and financial incentives given to health professionals for promoting their products. These marketing strategies divert mothers from breastfeeding, which is particularly troubling in environments where substitutes are not a sustainable solution because of cost and the need to refrigerate and/or mix them with clean water.

We believe it is essential to support better implementation and monitoring of the Code of Marketing of Maternal Milk, adopted 30 years ago by the World Health Organization. Elise Rodriguez, Action Against Hunger's head of advocacy in Paris, said:

"Considering the health risks highlighted by the scientific community, these practices are unacceptable. The interest of public health must take precedence over commercial interests. Agribusiness companies must play their part in the fight against undernutrition."

Read the special edition of The Lancet here:

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About Action Against Hunger USA

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Action Against Hunger is a global humanitarian organization that takes decisive action against the causes and effects of hunger. We save the lives of malnourished children. We ensure families can access clean water, food, training, and health care. We enable entire communities to be free from hunger.