There is no question about what decades of studies have found. Breastfeeding is best for babies. But somehow the United States can’t quite get on board with a resolution that says as much, instead using bullying and threats of retaliation to try and kill it off at a spring meeting of the World Health Assembly in Geneva.
It was supposed to be a simple thing — a noncontroversial resolution that would reaffirm policies already, including limiting deceptive advertising practice for breastmilk substitutes. Instead, the U.S. representative came unhinged, first attempting to strip language from the resolution asking countries to “promote, protect and support breastfeeding.”
When that did not work, they resorted to threats and intimidation towards Ecuador, the original sponsor of the resolution. Ecuador caved quickly and no one else seemed anxious to step into the fray until Russia volunteered to carry the resolution.
According to New York Times reporter Andrew Jacobs, a Russian delegate said carrying the resolution was a matter of principle.
“We’re not trying to be a hero here, but we feel that it is wrong when a big country tries to push around some very small countries, especially on an issue that is really important for the rest of the world.”
Pretty awkward when Russia calls you out for being a bully.
A spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services, the agency leading the charge to torpedo the resolution, claimed that the resolution placed “unnecessary hurdles” on moms who do not breastfeed.
“These women should have the choice and access to alternatives for the health of their babies,” they said.
Monday, President Trump tweeted about the New York Times story, saying in part: “The U.S. strongly supports breast feeding but we don’t believe women should be denied access to formula. Many women need this option because of malnutrition and poverty.”
Of course the resolution does not deny anyone access to formula. What it does do is prioritize breastfeeding over a $70 billion formula industry. It’s also not about stigmatizing women who do not breastfeed, but let’s be frank: Real or perceived stigma is a first-world “problem” that does not end in the death of a baby.
In the United States and other developed nations, women have the privilege of not having to think twice about whether or not their water is clean enough for formula (unless, perhaps, they live in Flint, Michigan). They don’t usually face the prospect of their infant dying of diarrhea because they chose to or were unable to breastfeed. And, they don’t have to worry about formula being inaccessible once their breastmilk has dried up. One news article about breastmilk substitutes showed a picture of a store carrying 113 different kinds of breastmilk substitutes. Refugees living in camps and the extremely poor of the developing nations do not have the luxury of going to the corner store and buying formula.
When I was in Bangladesh earlier this year, I met a couple of mothers whose infants were not being breastfed but had been put on formula at birth. The local population had an average salary of $1 per day, while the refugee population has zero income. The cans of formula were $20 each. Local relief organizations cannot absorb the cost of buying the three or more cans a week that babies need, so they must rely on the large international organizations to continue supplying formula.
What happens far too often, though, is that mothers begin to make the formula stretch by diluting it more and more, so that babies tummies are full, but the nutritional value is negligible. They begin finding substitutes to the substitute — the water used to boil rice, perhaps, or other non-nutritive but affordable options. Almost always, the water used for mixing formula or cleaning bottles is not clean water. Dish soap can also be a luxury and I never have seen a bottle brush in a refugee camp.
The things we take for granted in the United States — clean water, easy access to stores that sell formula and even bottle brushes — are not readily available worldwide and that lack exacts a high price. A 2016 study in The Lancet, the world’s leading medical journal, estimated that 823,000 babies lives could be saved each year if they were breastfed exclusively for six months. Those are a lot of precious lives lost unnecessarily.
Perhaps the reason behind the U.S. opposition can be summed up by the CEO of one of the major formula manufacturers. In his Q1 2016 earnings call with shareholders, Mead Johnson CEO Peter Kasper Jakobsen said: “The start to the year in our U.S. business was affected by market share losses from the highs we saw in the middle of 2015. On a positive note, we believe the strengthening labor market and workforce participation rates have caused a rise in breastfeeding rates to level off over the last four months or so.”
What a sad, sorry statement of prioritizing profits over the health, well-being and even the very life of our most vulnerable.
America, it’s not all about you. Your babies are not the only ones that matter. If you’re mantra is “All lives matter,” let’s actually include all lives, not just American ones.
Holly Richardson, a regular Salt Lake Tribune contributor, has breast and bottle-fed her babies, has no guilt or shame over her choices. She also knows that “breast is best” and can, in fact, save lives. Follow Holly on Twitter @HollyontheHill.