August 21st, 2007

Breastfeeding battle rages on in Philippines

This month as communities around the world marked international World Breastfeeding Week (Canada celebrates Oct 1-7), formula companies in the Philippines launched an advertising offensive designed to undermine breastfeeding in that country. The Pharmaceutical and Healthcare Association of the Philippines (PHAP), which represents several multinational formula companies, placed an ad in the country’s leading papers during WBW to demonstrate its supposed commitment to breastfeeding and infant health. The advertisements were promptly condemned by the World Health Organization, UNICEF, and the Philippines Department of Health (DOH).

PHAP and the DOH are currently in a highly publicized legal battle over the proposed implementation of strong pro-breastfeeding laws known as the Milk Code, which amounts to an outright ban on formula advertising. PHAP is desperate to quash the new rules, and is fighting tooth and nail to protect its profits under the guise of safeguarding mothers’ right to “information” about infant feeding.

The ad distorted figures compiled by WHO and UNICEF in an effort to demonstrate that national breastfeeding rates are at acceptable levels and have not been endangered by formula advertising. For instance, PHAP claimed that the Philippines has achieved a “commendable” breastfeeding rate of 87%. This may appear high, but in fact this number represents the percentage of babies who have ever been breastfed even once, and the Philippines has the lowest “ever breastfed” rate among the 56 countries which have recorded such data. Half of all infants in the Philippines are exclusively breastfed for less than 25 days, and it is estimated that 16 000 children die every year in the country because they are not breastfed. This is what formula companies call “commendable”?

UNICEF publicly stated its objection to PHAP’s ads.

“Recent statements from the infant formula industry distort clear evidence and can confuse the public regarding two important facts,” said Colin Davis of UNICEF. “One, exclusive breastfeeding in the Philippines is declining; and two, the use of formula exposes infants to serious health risks. These ads are further proof that the National Milk Code needs to be rigorously implemented.”

The formula ad also stated that “the World Health Organization recognizes that for the non-breastfed infant, infant formula is appropriate.” This too is a distortion of WHO recommendations, which state that the best alternatives to breastfeeding are expressed milk from the infant’s mother, breastmilk from a wetnurse, and thirdly breastmilk from a human milk bank.

“The use of breastmilk substitutes is a last resort,” said Jean-Marc Olivé of WHO. “In fact, infants who are not breastfed, for whatever reason, should receive special attention from the health and social welfare system since they constitute a risk group.”

The Filipino supreme court is currently deliberating over the implementation of the Milk Code. INFACT Canada joins our Filipino partners in hoping that a positive outcome will be reached soon. The health of many infants is at stake.

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