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Health

The US Tried to Block a UN Breastfeeding Measure, Baffling Health Experts


Why Global Citizens Should Care
Breastfeeding, when possible, has been shown to be the healthiest choice for both babies and mothers. But for years, companies have advocated for formula over breast milk, targeting mothers living in poverty through marketing. International resolutions like this one provide countries with the guidance and research they need to champion health policies for their citizens. You can join us by taking action here to support maternal and child health everywhere.

Breastfeeding is incredibly nutritious for babies and beneficial for mothers, too. Increasing global breastfeeding rates could save more than 820,000 lives every year, according to UNICEF.

So participants of the World Health Assembly in May were surprised by the United States delegation’s persistent attempts to block a recent resolution to “protect, promote, and support breastfeeding,” The New York Times reported on Sunday.

Take Action: Tweet at Ugandan Leaders and Urge Them to Prioritize Maternal and Child Health

The resolution provides policy guidance on how to support and promote breastfeeding, but is not a legally binding for any countries party to it.

The US’ opposition to the resolution was first reported by News Deeply in June as news emerged that US representatives had sought to water down the document’s language and threatened countries that supported the resolution with punitive trade measures.

Ecuador, which originally planned to introduce the resolution, was forced to drop it, after facing threats to trade and military aid from the US, The New York Times reported. The measure was eventually introduced by Russia and was passed with amended language.

In an email, a spokesperson for the Department of Health and Human Services, which led the push to change the resolution, told The New York Times that “the resolution as originally drafted placed unnecessary hurdles for mothers seeking to provide nutrition to their children.” 

“We recognize not all women are able to breast-feed for a variety of reasons,” the spokesperson, who asked to remain anonymous, wrote. “These women should have the choice and access to alternatives for the health of their babies, and not be stigmatized for the ways in which they are able to do so.”

Read more: These 4 Baby Formula Brands Are Putting Profits Before Science, Warns Report

Advocates at the assembly in Geneva, Switzerland, said that the US delegation specifically pushed to remove references to baby formula marketing regulations. The resolution ultimately includes just one mention of the International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes, a guiding policy document from the World Health Organization that seeks to limit misinformation and misleading marketing that suggests baby formula is more nutritious than breast milk.

A recent joint investigation by the Guardian and nonprofit Save the Children found that several international baby formula companies aggressively target mothers in living in poverty in developing countries with “infant nutrition” pamphlets that advocate for the use of baby formula over breast milk.

Breast milk is a highly nutritious and “unequalled” first food for babies, according to the World Health Organization. Research has shown that, when possible, breastfeeding provides babies with the healthiest start to life and can help build an infant’s immunity.

Read more: Baby Formula Brands Use ‘Aggressive’ Marketing Tactics to Target Vulnerable Mothers, Says Report

But baby food and infant formula is a massive market — valued at $50 billion in 2017 — and advertising it is a multimillion dollar industry in the US. Global health advocates told News Deeply that the US’ unexpected pushback on the resolution has been a wake-up call to industry influence.

Though the resolution was passed, experts are concerned that its weakened language will impede its efforts to support and promote breastfeeding, particularly in low-income countries, which rely on the research and guidance of such documents to back their policies.