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COVID-19 pandemic disrupts breastfeeding services

The Covid-19 pandemic has caused significant disruptions in breastfeeding support services, while increasing the risk of food insecurity and malnutrition, WHO and UNICEF have today said.

Mothers breastfeeding their children. Photo by Arnold Cheptumo Kibet

Several countries have reported that producers of baby foods have compounded these risks by invoking unfounded fears that breastfeeding can transmit Covid-19 and marketing their products as a safer alternative to breastfeeding.

This week marks the beginning of the World Breastfeeding week and World Health Organisation (WHO) has said that this year is a historic opportunity to transform the way the world tackles the global commitment to eliminate child malnutrition.

At the start of this year, governments, donors, civil society and the private sector united to launch the Nutrition for Growth Year of Action. In a joint statement with UNICEF, the two organisations have said that while there has been progress in breastfeeding rates in the last four decades, with a 50 per cent increase in the prevalence of exclusive breastfeeding globally, the Covid-19 pandemic highlights the fragility of those gains.

This year’s World Breastfeeding Week, under its theme ‘Protect Breastfeeding: A Shared Responsibility’ is a time to revisit the commitments made at the start of this year by prioritizing breastfeeding-friendly environments for mothers and babies, the joint statement says.

“As we approach the UN Food Systems Summit in September and the Tokyo Nutrition for Growth Summit in December, governments, donors, civil society and the private sector all have an opportunity to make smart investments and commitments to tackle the global malnutrition crisis that includes protecting, promoting and supporting breastfeeding through stronger policies, programmes and actions,” WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said.

UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore, says that now is not the time to lower our ambitions but it is the time to aim high and commit to making the Nutrition for Growth Year of Action a success by ensuring that every child’s right to nutritious, safe and affordable food and adequate nutrition is realized from the beginning of life, starting with breastfeeding.

In the Joint statement the two have noted that breastfeeding is central to realising the commitment to end child malnutrition by initiating of breastfeeding within the first hour of birth, followed by exclusive breastfeeding for six months and continued breastfeeding for up to two years or beyond.

This they say offers a powerful line of defence against all forms of child malnutrition, including wasting and obesity.

“Breastfeeding also acts as babies’ first vaccine, protecting them against many common childhood illnesses,” the two organisations said.

In Kenya, Head of Family Health Department in the Health Ministry Dr. Isaac Bashir said there is need for a robust support system for breastfeeding practices to take place and called on stakeholders to support community, in work places on set breastfeeding programmes.

Countries have been called upon to ensure the International Code of Marketing of Breast milk Substitutes is established to protect mothers from aggressive marketing practices by the baby food industry and this is fully implemented by governments, health workers and industry.

They should also ensure health care workers have the resources and information they need to effectively support mothers to breastfeed, including through global efforts such as the Baby-friendly Hospital Initiative, and guidelines on breastfeeding counselling.

Governments should also ensure employers allow women the time and space they need to breastfeed, including paid parental leave with longer maternity leave, safe places for breastfeeding in the workplace, access to affordable and good-quality childcare, and universal child benefits and adequate wages.

The world celebrates World Breastfeeding Week from August 1 to August 7 every year, to spread awareness about its importance and need.

By Wangari Ndirangu

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