Yesterday global women’s and children’s advocates sounded the alarm regarding alleged strong-arming by US delegates at this year’s World Health Assembly (WHA) in Geneva. The issue at hand was the rights of women regarding their choice between breastfeeding and formula feeding.
According to the New York Times, the US delegation sought to remove the language in a pro-breastfeeding resolution that compelled countries to “protect, promote and support breastfeeding” and to remove any restrictions on formula that many global health experts contend is harmful to infants and toddlers.
The US delegation threatened Ecuador (the sponsoring country for the resolution) with devasting trade measures and a reduction in military aid. Ecuador acquiesced as did many more African and Latin American countries until Russia stepped up to sponsor the resolution, a country the US could not threaten.
Lucy M. Sullivan, Executive Director of 1000 Days, tweeted an entire thread about what was happening at the World Health Assembly in May.
Many felt the US delegation clearly favored the formula industry as opposed to the health of women and children. Decades of research affirm breastfeeding is the best way to nourish infants and this is especially true in countries where deceptive marketing can push mothers to formula feed even with limited access to safe drinking water.
President Trump added his argument against the New York Times piece saying that it was “fake news” and that the United States supports breastfeeding, but also supports the rights of women who want to formula feed due to malnutrition and poverty. Many global health experts cite malnutrition and poverty as key reasons why women should opt to breastfeed. In fact, breastfeeding saves the lives of 800,000 infants each year and helps malnutrition and wasting.
It is important to note that while the tactics of the US delegation at the World Health Assembly in May were shocking to some policymakers, it is not the first time the United States has rejected a full-on health-positive approach to breastfeeding as tweeted by Chelsea Clinton yesterday.
Even though the New York Times reported that the United States was largely unsuccessful at bulldozing the entire breastfeeding resolution, small omissions and revocations in breastfeeding wording can have deleterious effects globally. For example, as we wrote last year, Filipinos spend over $240 million on breastmilk substitutes and the milk industry only spends $100 million on marketing dollars in the Philippines alone. The Philippines is a clear case where the WHO code is clearly being violated. Breastfeeding needs more advocacy worldwide and not the opposite to appease special interests.