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Why we cannot allow aggressive formula milk marketing to continue

Save the Children ambassador Isla Fisher on why the formula milk industry needs stronger regulation, to help the world’s most vulnerable children

In 2013, I became a Save the Children ambassador for their breastfeeding campaign and visited Brazil to see how promoting breast feeding to new mothers had dramatically cut the number of infant deaths.

When a baby receives their mothe’s milk within an hour of their birth, their immune system is kicked to life and it helps provide protection against diseases like pneumonia and diarrhea.

However, around the world, the formula milk industry continue to falsely claim their products have superiority over breastmilk in their marketing. This undermines the confidence of some new mothers who then don’t think breastfeeding is even an option. For those who don’t have access to clean water to wash their bottles with or to make up their formula with, this creates a life of death situation.

As a mother of three I am well versed on the ongoing debates and fervor that the breast vs formula milk topic can evoke and I am of the view that women, when correctly informed, should have the right to choose what is both best for them, and their baby. The work I saw in Brazil was helping to educate women so that they are able to make these decisions after years of misinformation from formula milk companies.

I left hopeful that a positive change was happening which makes it even more unbelievable that an estimated 823,000 children around the world are still dying needlessly every year due to these aggressive marketing tactics. You may remember it as an issue from the late 1970’s which was supposed to be resolved with a World Health Organisation Code, yet nearly 40 years on it’s still a huge issue as adherence to the code remains mixed.

Save the Children is today launching a report, Don’t Push It, which reveals the aggressive marketing tactics formula milk companies use to encourage mothers to spend money they don’t have on manufactured food they don’t need.

It is a huge problem around the world and especially in developing countries. I have been closely following the work Save have been doing with Syrian refugees in camps in surrounding countries like Jordan, and ironically, these camps are actually one of the only places in the world that women are protected from formula milk marketing.

Za’atari in Jordan is one of the largest refugee camps in the world and women there are not only educated about breastfeeding and bottle sterilisation, there is also a system in place to report any violations by formula milk companies advertising or marketing to parents in the camps and Save the Children make sure only eligible mothers receive formula milk.

This has meant a complete turnaround for women like Isra’a who had started breastfeeding her son, Jude, in Syria but then moved to formula milk on the road. Jude developed diarrhea and Isra’a was forced to sell her own food rations to make sure her son could eat. I can’t even begin to imagine how traumatic it must be to flee your home, without the added trauma of then having to choose between feeding yourself, your other children or your new born baby. Save the Children helped Isra’a lactate and she is now able to breastfeed.

Another mother, Zeinab arrived in the camp when her daughter Bayab was just 10 days old and was so traumatised by fleeing Syria that she could no longer breastfeed and started giving Bayab formula milk with no knowledge of the sterilization process. Bayab consequently got very ill and only recovered when Zeinab was put on a programme to ensure she was giving her baby the right amount of milk and washing her bottles correctly.

The work in Za’atrai helps educate and protect new mothers whilst it is a life-saver for these babies who are already born into horrendous circumstances. It shows that, when the industry is governed properly, babies lives really can be saved. But it shouldn’t need that level of governance. Companies should operate within the agreed code and not target vulnerable women. Companies are putting their profits before the lives of newborn babies and we shouldn’t accept it anymore.

Save the Children are calling for the chief executives of these companies to publicly and unequivocally commit to upholding the World Health Organisation’s International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes. For more information visit www.savethechildren.org.uk