Save the child …. Give breast milk!*

The World Breastfeeding Week is celebrated every year (August 1st to 7th) in more than 170 countries to encourage breastfeeding and improve the health of babies around the world. It commemorates the Innocenti Declaration made by WHO and UNICEF policy-makers in August 1990 to protect, promote and support breastfeeding (http://www.unicef.org/programme/breastfeeding/innocenti.htm).

As we all know, the first two years of a child’s life are particularly important, as optimal nutrition during this period will lead to reduced morbidity and mortality, to reduced risk of chronic diseases and to overall better development. Indeed, infant and young child feeding is one key area (or the cornerstone) to improve child survival and promote healthy growth and development.

The situation

Malnutrition is responsible, directly or indirectly for about 33% of deaths among children under five. Well above two thirds of these deaths, often associated with inappropriate feeding practices, occur during the first year of life. In fact, despite compelling evidence that exclusive breastfeeding prevents diseases like diarrhea and pneumonia that kill millions of children every year, global rates of breastfeeding have remained relatively stagnant in the developing world, growing from 32% in 1995 to 39% in 2010 (see map below to get an idea of the level of exclusive breastfeeding per country).

In reality, breastfeeding rates in the developing world have been declining until recently. This decline has been attributed to changing socioeconomic factors and the perception that infant formula is superior to breast milk. To give you a concrete example and according to UNICEF Pacific Representative, Dr. Isiye Ndombi: “In the Pacific, breastfeeding rates dropped for a number of reasons, either because mothers were being integrated into the workforce, were not supported by their spouses or were not making informed decisions about the long-term benefits breastfeeding would bring to their children. Exclusive breastfeeding (i.e breastfeeding from birth to six months) are about 40% in Fiji, Tuvalu and Vanuatu, and 31% in the Republic of Marshall Islands.”

“It’s a global trend”, says Elisbeth Sterken, national director of INFACT Canada, a non-profit agency concerned with issues around breastfeeding (http://www.infactcanada.ca/). The impact of bottle-feeding infants is different culture to culture but the long-term impact would be the same – a high incidence of obesity and metabolic diseases. Why?

For example, “in Western cultures, bottle-fed babies begin life with nutritional deficiencies that may lead to health and obesity issues later in life”, she said.

In fact, it was a real surprise to read in a book entitled “Let them eat junk” that baby formula can contain 60% more sugars than regular milk. In fact, a bottle-fed baby consumes 30,000 more calories over its first eight months than a breast-fed one. That’s the calories equivalent of 120 average chocolate bars. Given how early our tastes are formed, it is not surprising that “several research studies have shown correlations between bottle-feeding and subsequent obesity. And the problem continues in baby foods, against efforts to limits the high level of added sugars.

Is it possible to advocate for an improvement of the nutritious value of baby formula and change the current trend?

The task seems tricky. Lobbying power from food companies is huge! The battle is unequal, something similar to the idea developed by Jean de la Fontaine in one of his poems. What union can there be between a clay pot and an iron pot? Because when they collide against each other, the clay pot will be broken.

Just one example to demonstrate this unequal battle: the Thai introduced a proposal to reduce the levels of sugars in baby foods from the existing maximum of 30% to 10%, as part of the global fight against obesity. The proposal was blocked by the US and the EU, where the world’s largest sugar corporations have their home offices. This is one among other examples of the lobbying power of the sugar companies.

And what happens in the developing countries?

In developing countries the impact is more dramatic”, Sterken said. An estimated 1.5 million formula-fed babies die each year because families in developing countries can’t afford the formula and dilute it, use contaminated water to mix it, can’t properly sterilize bottles, or supplement with sugared tea, thereby depriving their children of nutrition, and introducing deadly bacteria into their food.

Another important problem is related to the high level of urbanization in sub-Saharan Africa.

Slums in sub-Saharan Africa are expanding at a fast rate, and the majority of urban residents now live in slum settlements. And in fact, urban poor settlements or slums present unique challenges with regards to child health and survival.  The slums are characterized by poor environmental sanitation and livelihood conditions. Contrary to the long-held belief that urban residents are advantaged with regards to health outcomes, urban slum dwellers tend to have very poor health indicators. Then it is not a surprise to observe thaturban mothers are less likely than rural ones to breastfeed -and more likely to wean their children early if they do begin. Low rates of breastfeeding may be attributed in part to cultural practices, access to and utilization of health care facilities, a lack of knowledge about the importance of the practice, but more importantly to the reality that poor women in urban settings who work outside the home are often unable to breastfeed.

This is an important point, how can we help women who work in developing countries to act sppropriately?  It is a necessity for them to be able to breastfeed because it is good for their babies but they also need to economically survive. A dilema!

Does malnutrition affect the quality of mother’s milk?

The 2008 Lancet Nutrition Series highlighted the remarkable fact that a non-breastfed child is 14 times more likely to die in the first six months than an exclusively breastfed child. Breast milk meets a baby’s complete nutritional requirements and is one of the best values among investments in child survival as the primary cost is the mother’s nutrition. In this context and knowing the high incidence of food insecurity in the developing countries, it seems important to ask if malnutrition (or poor nutrition) can affect the quality of mother’s milk and compromise the potential benefit of breastfeeding where it is most needed, i.e. the developing countries.

In fact, a review of the literature showed that mild or moderate malnutrition rarely affects the amount or quality of breast milk that a woman produces. The mother’s dietary intake will not generally increase how much breast milk she can produce in a day. Her nutritional status before and during pregnancy are important for milk content, but generally this has only of marginal impact since her body will ensure that the breast milk receives the available vitamins and minerals. If her diet remains inadequate for a long time, the milk may contain fewer vitamins and fats as her own body stores are used up. However, her breast milk continues to be nourishing for her child, and provides anti-infective factors that help to protect the child against infections. No breast milk substitute contains these protective factors.

The response at the micro and macro levels

It’s hard to believe that something as natural, healthy and cost-free as breastfeeding needs to be promoted by health and nutrition specialists. But as World Breastfeeding Week began on Aug. 1, breastfeeding specialists want to draw attention to the many benefits of breastfeeding to mother and baby and curb the trend toward bottle-feeding infants with commercially prepared formula.

In 2002, the WHO and UNICEF have developed a Global Strategy for Infant and Young Child Feeding (http://www.who.int/nutrition/publications/infantfeeding/9241562218/en/), which recommends that infants start breastfeeding within one hour of life, are exclusively breastfed for six months, with timely introduction of adequate, safe and properly fed complementary foods while continuing breastfeeding for up to two years of age or beyond.

Moreover, the WHO and the United Nations Children’s Fund jointly developed a code for marketing infant formula to curb aggressive marketing campaigns, especially in developing countries (http://www.who.int/nutrition/publications/code_english.pdf). However, its impact over the past 30 years has been limited because of a series of alleged violations and boycotts.

What do we need to do to reinforce exclusive breastfeeding globally?

An international governance is needed to step in and replace the voluntary marketing code. It will help to address and correct unethical marketing that could be put in place by makers of breastmilk substitutes.

It is also necessary to develop national policies that support maternity leave, not only in developed, but also in developing countries.

And finally, it is important to work at the community level. One of the strategies could be to train low-income mothers as breastfeeding counselors and assist communities in forming mother-to-mother support groups (something similar to Saving Help Group). This strategy will increase the understanding of the risks of not breastfeeding and finally, it will reinforce the practice of exclusive breastfeeding among mothers.

In fact, if the exclusive breastfeeding rate was increased significantly, as much as 13% of all deaths of children younger than 5 years could be prevented that could represent around 1 million children under five in the developing world each year. Moreover, the promotion of breastfeeding could avert 21.9 million disability adjusted life years (8.6%).

What do we mean by exclusive breastfeeding?

“Exclusive breastfeeding” is defined as giving no other food or drink – not even water – except breast milk. It does, however, allow the infant to receive oral rehydration salts (ORS), drops and syrups (vitamins, minerals and medicines). Breast milk is the ideal food for the healthy growth and development of infants; and it’s also an integral part of the reproductive process with important implications for the health of mothers.

Then, what are the benefits? Just a recap….

Exclusive breastfeeding for six months has many benefits for the infant and the mother, says the WHO. “Chief among these is protection against gastro-intestinal infections which is observed not only in developing but also in industrialized countries. Early initiation of breastfeeding, within one hour of birth, protects the newborn from acquiring infections and reduces newborn mortality. Finally, the risk of mortality due to diarrhea and other infections can increase in infants who are either partially breastfed or not breastfed at all.”

Breast milk is also an important source of energy and nutrients in children 6 to 23 months of age. It can provide one half or more of a child’s energy needs between 6 and 12 months of age, and one third of energy needs between 12 and 24 months. Breast milk is also a critical source of energy and nutrients during illness and reduces mortality among children who are malnourished.

Adults who were breastfed as babies often have lower blood pressure and lower cholesterol, as well as lower rates of overweight, obesity and type-2 diabetes.

Breastfeeding also contributes to the health and well-being of mothers. It reduces the risk of ovarian and breast cancer and helps space pregnancies — exclusive breastfeeding of babies under six months has a hormonal effect which often induces a lack of menstruation. This is a natural (though not fail-safe) method of birth control known as the Lactation Amenorrhea Method.

Moreover and from a sustainable point of view, exclusive breastfeeding contributes both directly and indirectly to sustainable development. Evidence has clearly shown that exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of a baby’s life not only improves their future growth and educational achievement, but also significantly reduces national health costs and helps prevent chronic malnutrition. Breastfeeding helps to prevent a number of diseases in childhood and later in life. It offers protection from infections, allergies and adult-life chronic conditions like hypertension, diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular diseases and cancer that rob the national budgets of millions of dollars.

Breastfeeding needs to be valued as a benefit which is not only good for babies, mothers, and families, but also as a saving for governments in the long run.

* The theme for this year’s celebration is “Understanding the past, planning the future: Celebrating 10 years of WHO/UNICEF’s Global strategy for Infant and Young Child Feeding”. It has the slogan “Save the Child, Give breast milk”.

Resources:

http://allafrica.com/stories/201208060231.html http://allafrica.com/stories/201207051232.html

http://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/GE1208/S00003/make-breastfeeding-easier-for-mothers-says-unicef.htm

http://www.guelphmercury.com/news/local/article/771868–world-breastfeeding-week-aims-to-promote-benefits-curb-bottle-trends

http://www.unicef.org/nutrition/index_emergencies.html http://helid.digicollection.org/en/d/Js8230e/1.3.1.html

http://www.biomedcentral.com/1471-2458/11/396/

http://www.nbcchicago.com/investigations/series/target-5/target-5-sugar-baby-formula-139339308.html

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2812877/

http://www.nutraingredients.com/Industry/Infant-formula-marketing-code-has-failed-says-expert

Book: Let them eat junk, how capitalism creates hunger and obesity – Robert Albritton

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It is possible to improve food security in Sahel!

Where is located Sahel?

We have all heard about Sahel, but we don’t really know where it is located and how this region is large? Check the map below for more information.

The Sahel (in orange) is the ecoclimatic and biogeographic zone of transition between the Sahara desert (in yellow) in the North and the less arid Savannah (in green) in the South. It stretches across the north of the African continent between the Atlantic Ocean and the Red Sea. The Sahel covers parts of the territory of (from west to east) Senegal, southern part of Mauritania, Mali, southern part of Algeria, Niger, Chad, southern part of Sudan and Eritrea.

What characterizes the Sahel region right now?

The Sahel region suffers from recurrent drought events, temperatures easily crawl into the 100s. Food insecurity, hunger, death are common. Widespread drought, high food prices and poor harvests have put more than 18 million people in a situation of starvation and over a million children at risk of severe malnutrition.

But, despite this dramatic scenario of food insecurity – low rainfall and general food scarcity, some farmers have had a bumper rice yield this year. This surplus rice is no accident.

Is it a miracle?

Not at all! Over the last three years ACDI/VOCA (http://www.acdivoca.org/site/ID/home), an economic development organization, has helped some 10,000 farmers in the northern Segou region of the Sahel region located in Mali to make the transition from semi-nomadic livestock herders to sedentary farmers and landowners through the Alatona Irrigation Project, funded by the Millennium Challenge Account (MCA – an innovative and independent U.S. foreign aid agency that is helping lead the fight against global poverty (http://www.mcc.gov/pages/about).

Like for the majority of the African countries, the inhabitants of this region depend on natural rainfall to grow crops or create viable grazing grounds. For these pastoralists, one year of low rainfall, like last year, could wipe out their animal herds and create a human disaster. Indeed, it can force them to sale their livestock on which they depend for survival at a fraction of their value because it is done in response to a crisis situation. Resettling in a new village and retraining these herders has helped them transition from a subsistence lifestyle into commercial agriculture, resulting in family economic stability and regional food security.

How did they achieve these objectives – family economic stability and regional food security?

Each of the resettled families will receive title to five hectares of irrigated land (which is significantly superior to the average farm size of one hectare that a large majority of the farmers own in Mali), new housing and improved access to fresh water supplies, primary education for children, and health clinics.

Improving the quality of life of the whole family and breaking the intergenerational poverty cycle are important!

Working with local organizations, ACDI/VOCA helps train the new farmers to grow rice with careful irrigation, soil conservation and fertility practices. The farmers are also diversifying and selectively marketing second-season cash crops.

More specifically, ACDI/VOCA is organizing the distribution of agricultural starter kits to ensure success for first-time rice farmers. The kits include oxen, plowing equipment, wagons, fertilizer and certified seed. ACDI/VOCA will also provide kits for a second dry season vegetable crop exclusively for women farmers. In addition to rice, farmers are exploring markets for shallots, potatoes and forage crops for livestock feed.

Perhaps most importantly, these new farmers are learning water management, hydraulic systems, irrigation and drainage techniques as well as the best practices in terms of maintenance of a network of canals.

Access to water, appropriate equipments, technologies, savoir faire and local capacity building for long-lasting outcomes as well as diversification of the production are the keystone of any successful farming project!

As a result, Alatona farmers are producing 5.2 tons per hectare and making on average $1,000 per hectare in a country where average annual incomes are measured at $700 per year.

Everybody thought we herders were incapable of successfully developing the land that the project has given us,” Demba Diallo, a chief of one of the resettled villages remarked. “With all the positive impacts we are seeing, we are organizing ourselves to better overcome defeats.”

This project is designed to go beyond food subsistence and move into agribusiness, where farmers can invest in small threshing machines, de-hulling machines and motorized tractors.

Infrastructure development projects like the Alatona Irrigation Project can help foster food security and alleviate poverty through economic growth. And the components of this winner ticket are replicable through a holistic and integrated approach that needs to include:

A Variety of Services 

It integrates financial services, irrigation development and women’s gardens into its agricultural training program. It fosters sustainability by helping producers form farmer organizations that have market advantage whether buying farm inputs or selling the crops. 

The ownership of the Land for the farmers

The agricultural land in the project is being cultivated under a land title system, which is a first for the region. Now farmers own the land and have incentives to make improvements. As decision-makers, they put in crops the market demands.

 

Challenges still exist for the Alatona Irrigation Project, such as maintaining long-term soil fertility, sustaining the canal infrastructure, transferring know-how to younger generations and coping with the current political instability in Mali.

Sources:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/anja-tranovich/food-security-solutions-sahel_b_1651153.html

http://www.acdivoca.org/site/ID/maliMCA-ASDA

If you would like to read more of the series of articles published by Huffington post to call attention to the crisis in the Sahel, go to:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/news/sahel

You will find some really interesting articles….