Everybody's talking about the uproar at this year's meeting of the World Health Assembly, from scientists and policymakers to celebrities on social media. “WE SHOULD BE SCREAMING ABOUT THIS,” actress and activist Alyssa Milano posted on Twitter. So what exactly happened, and what did the United States do that took everyone by surprise?
Let's break it down. At a meeting of the World Health Organization, Ecuador put forward a resolution to encourage breastfeeding across the globe, expecting a quick and easy approval. They certainly didn't expect anyone would find controversy in the idea that breast milk is the healthiest option for babies, and that countries should strive to limit the inaccurate or misleading marketing of breast milk substitutes. It seemed like a no-brainer.
But to everyone's surprise, delegates from the United States objected, even going so far as to warn Ecuador that Washington would withdraw military aid and issue trade sanctions against them if they didn't modify the language. Ecuador backed down, and then other countries, fearing similar retaliation, passed on sponsoring the proposal. Russia finally stepped in and introduced the measure, and voila! no more threats. The resolution passed, with some of the language slightly modified.
The US objected to phrases that called on governments to “protect, promote and support breastfeeding” and a section that asked policymakers to restrict the promotion of food products meant as a supplement to go with breast milk. Social media exploded with accusations that the US was putting the interests of formula makers ahead of families.
The US Department of Health and Human Services explained that the original resolution "placed unnecessary hurdles for mothers seeking to provide nutrition to their children,” despite the fact that WHO was not trying to discourage the use of formula by those who want or need it, but rather to stop the flow of incorrect information about unnecessary products and supplements for nursing babies.
The Benefits of Breastfeeding
The health benefits of breast milk are not in debate, according to experts. “WHO recommends breast milk as the best source of nourishment for infants and young children,” a WHO spokesman tells CNN. “Exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months is one of the most effective ways to ensure child health and survival.”
The American Academy of Pediatrics agrees, stating, “Human milk provides virtually all the protein, sugar and fat your baby needs to be healthy, and it also contains many substances that benefit your baby’s immune system, including antibodies, immune factors, enzymes and white blood cells. These substances protect your baby against a wide variety of diseases and infections not only while he is breastfeeding but in some cases long after he has weaned. Formula cannot offer this protection.”
Milano was quick to share her outrage over the US’s objection on Twitter, and clearly her fury has resonated: The post has tens of thousands of likes and shares.
Her followers backed her up, emphasizing that while breastfeeding isn’t something all mothers can or want to do, there’s no sense in blocking an effort to support nursing moms.
“No, breastfeeding isn’t an option for every woman, and formula has been a lifesaver for many babies. (Yay!) However, we shouldn’t downplay breastfeeding as a shameful or outdated method of feeding in order to discourage moms that are able to breastfeed from doing so in order to profit,” one follower writes.
Another post reads, “There’s bullying on both sides, yes. It is a choice. But one that should be fully informed. Formula moms shouldn’t be made to feel guilty and breastfeeding moms shouldn’t be shamed into bathroom stalls.”
“WTF. I was sadly unable to breastfeed my daughter, but completely supportive of those who do,” another mom says. “This is insane!!!”
At the end of the day, fed is best. But with clear health benefits to breastfeeding, we’re all for encouraging nursing moms—and definitely not down with efforts to dissuade or undermine them.