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A laudable step

February 18, 2013

GIVEN the recent spate of alarming developments on the health front, specifically with regard to polio and measles, it is encouraging that the Sindh Assembly has taken a proactive step to improve overall child health in the province. The passage of the Sindh Protection of Breastfeeding and Child Nutrition Act 2013 renders illegal the propagation by anyone, including manufacturers, distributors, health workers and medical practitioners, of any material that encourages bottle-feeding or discourages breast-feeding. Transgressors are liable to imprisonment up to two years and a fine ranging from Rs50,000 to Rs500,000. Under this new law, no product can be promoted as a substitute for mother’s milk, either equivalent to, or superior to it. Moreover, it is now obligatory for manufacturers to display a prominent notice on such products stating that mother’s milk is best for babies and helps in preventing illness.

For a society that tends to cling to tradition, the fact that breast-feeding has fallen out of favour — or else goes hand-in-hand with the ubiquitous “top feed” — among Pakistani mothers is unfortunate. According to Unicef, only 16 per cent of infants are exclusively breast-fed in Pakistan, even though research has long established the many benefits of the practice. Breast-feeding precludes the risks associated with unhygienic handling during preparation of bottle feeds, thereby affording protection against diarrhoea, one of the leading causes of death in infants in Pakistan. Its cost-effectiveness can scarcely be overstated for a populace increasingly burdened by inflation. However, as one is well aware from the experience of health warnings on cigarette packs, changing attitudes takes more than cautionary notes on packaging. If the campaign is to effectively counter bottle formula advertising and its apple-cheeked babies, the media should be co-opted to disseminate messages in support of breast-feeding as a corollary to this laudable first step.