ISLAMABAD: With over 5.7 million people infected with the novel coronavirus across the globe and the baby food industry exploiting fears of the infection, a new report has advised mothers not to hesitate while breastfeeding babies as active virus has not, to date, been detected in breast milk.

The report titled “Marketing of breast milk substitutes: national implementation of the international code” was released by the World Health Organisation (WHO), United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) and International Baby Food Action Network (IBFAN) on Wednesday.

“It appears unlikely that Covid-19 would be transmitted through breastfeeding or by giving breast milk that has been expressed by a mother who is confirmed or suspected to have Covid-19. Women with confirmed or suspec­ted Covid-19 can therefore breastfeed if they wish to do so,” the report states.

Mothers have been advised to wash hands frequently with soap and water or use alcohol-based hand rub, especially before touching the baby... Wear a medical mask during any contact with the baby, including while feeding... Sneeze or cough into a tissue, then dispose of it (tissue) immediately and wash hands again; routinely clean and disinfect surfaces after touching them. Even if mothers do not have a medical mask, they should follow all other infection prevention measures and continue breastfeeding.

“The fear of Covid-19 transmission is eclipsing the importance of breastfeeding — and in too many countries mothers and babies are being separated at birth — making breastfeeding and skin to skin contact difficult if not impossible; all on the basis of no evidence. Meanwhile, the baby food industry is exploiting fears of infection, promoting and distributing free formula and misleading advice — claiming that the donations are humanitarian and that they are trustworthy partners,” said Patti Rundall of the IBFAN’s Global Council.

So far 882 children have tested positive for Covid-19 in Sindh

Given the important role of health workers in protecting pregnant women, mothers and their infants from inappropriate promotion of breast milk substitutes (BMS), the 2020 report provides an extensive analysis of legal measures taken to prohibit promotion of BMS to health workers and in health facilities. However, the report reveals that despite efforts to stop the harmful promotion of BMS, countries are still falling short in protecting parents from misleading information.

The Covid-19 pandemic highlights the need for stronger legislation to protect families from false claims about the safety of BMS or aggressive marketing practices. Breast milk saves children’s lives as it provides antibodies that give babies a healthy boost and pro­tect them against many childhood illnesses.

Of the 194 countries analysed in the report, 136 have in place some form of legal measure related to the International Code of Marketing of BMS and subsequent resolutions adopted by the World Health Assembly (the Code). Attention to the Code is growing as 44 countries have strengthened their regulations on marketing over the past two years.

Only 79 countries prohibit the promotion of BMS in health facilities and only 51 have provisions that prohibit the distribution of free or low-cost supplies within the healthcare system. However, the legal restrictions in most counties do not fully cover marketing that occurs in health facilities.

“The aggressive marketing of BMS, especially through health professionals that parents trust for nutrition and health advice, is a major barrier to improving newborn and child health worldwide,” said Dr Francesco Branca, director of WHO’s department of nutrition and food safety. “Healthcare systems must act to boost parent’s confidence in breastfeeding without industry influence so that children don’t miss out on its lifesaving benefits.”

The WHO and Unicef recommend that babies be fed nothing but breast milk for their first six months, after which they should continue breastfeeding — as well as eating other nutritious and safe foods — until two years of age or beyond.

It is also mentioned in the report that over the past two years, protections against inappropriate marketing of BMS have been strengthened in 44 countries around the world. Since the 2018 report, 11 countries — Pakistan (Punjab), Bahrain, Chad, Egypt, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Nigeria, Republic of Moldova, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and Uzbekistan — enacted new Code-related legislation or amended the existing legal measures.

“In Pakistan, Punjab province adop­ted new stringent regulations, leading the way for other provinces to consider strengthening their legal and regulatory framework to curb inappropriate promotion practices,” the report states.

Moreover, in terms of status of the Code category, Pakistan, Nepal and Myan­mar have been declared moderately aligned with the Code. On the other hand Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Saudi Arabia and India have been declared substantially aligned with the Code.

Pakistan’s National Nutrition Mana­ger Dr Baseer Khan Achakzai, while talking to Dawn, said the ratio of breastfeeding, which was 38 per cent a few years ago, has been improved to 48pc. When asked about the standard operating procedures relating to breastfeeding, he agreed that there was no arrangement for counselling of mothers and a majority of women remained unaware of how they should deal with babies.

In reply to a question, Mr Achakzai said that though there was a law, enacted in 2009, that BMS companies should mention on the products and advertisements that there was no alternative to mother’s milk, it was hardly implemented.

Coronavirus in children

Sindh government’s spokesperson Murtaza Wahab has revealed that so far 882 children have tested positive for Covid-19 in the province.

“So far 882 children under the age of 10 have tested #Covid-19 positive in #Sindh. This sharp increase in number shows how carless we have been and have unfortunately brought this virus home. Can’t we defer shopping and socialising,” he tweeted.

Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Health Dr Zafar Mirza has already warned that the number of Covid-19 cases and deaths is increasing. “Severe rush is being observed in markets and public places and it feels like public has been assuming that the virus has been eradicated. The disease is continuously spreading and we are not aware that for how long it would continue. I want to warn that it will convert into a tragedy if we do not behave with responsibility,” he said the other day.

Published in Dawn, May 28th, 2020