|© UNICEF Indonesia/2009/Sutkojo|
|UNICEF Representative in Indonesia Angela Kearney talks to a mother who is breastfeeding her baby at earthquake-affected Padang City, West Sumatra.|
By Lely Djuhari
PADANG, Indonesia, 4 November 2009 – The stacks of formula milk in a former ballroom in the city of Padang, West Sumatra, had to be quickly removed. Though generosity motivated local companies to donate these supplies in response to the 30 September earthquake here, such donations could have proved fatal.
In a crisis such as this, continued breastfeeding for infants is a far safer alternative to milk substitutes, which can be mixed with contaminated water and cause serious diarrhoeal disease.
Working closely with the Ministry of Health after the disaster struck, UNICEF quickly called local and national radio stations, asking them to broadcast requests to stop milk-substitute donations. Volunteers from a partner organization reminded mothers at temporary shelters not to stop breastfeeding.
The result of these appeals – including a ban on the direct distribution of formula milk to survivors’ babies – was largely positive.
“In disasters, given the likelihood of poorer environmental conditions such as the lower availability of safe water, it is crucial for mothers to continue breastfeeding their children instead of resorting to formula milk,” said UNICEF Representative in Indonesia Angela Kearney.
Infant feeding in emergencies
The day after the earthquake, UNICEF distributed information on infant feeding in emergencies to humanitarian communities and local authorities. This material was used by Muhammadiyah, Indonesia’s second biggest faith-based organization, which had sent volunteers to distribute aid in a remote village in Agam District.
When these volunteers approached Desi Fitria, who was eight-months pregnant at the time, she expressed apprehension about delivering her baby at the end of October.
“The health centre I used to go to is completely destroyed. I may have to go to the one about two hours away,” she said.
Despite such worries, she seemed relieved after listening to the volunteers’ advice - that breastfeeding in the first hour after birth, and exclusive breastfeeding during the first six months, would provide her baby with critical antibodies and nutrition for a healthy start in life.
“It’s so much easier to breastfeed. I don’t have to worry about boiling water and cleaning cups, teats or bottles from there,” she said, pointing to the lake that she and others at a temporary shelter were using as a water source.
Previous experiences in Indonesia have shown that infant formula and powdered milk are common donations during emergencies. Unfortunately, these products are often distributed in an uncontrolled manner and consumed by infants and children who would otherwise be breastfed.
|© UNICEF Indonesia/2009/Djuhari|
|At a temporary shelter in Agam District, Indonesia, Desi Fitria and her neighbours chat about her plans to give birth and breastfeed her baby.|
Results of a UNICEF assessment carried out one month after the Yogyakarta earthquake in 2006 indicated that three out of four families with children under six months old had received donations of infant formula. This led to an increase in infant formula consumption from 32 per cent before the earthquake to 43 per cent afterwards.
The rate of diarrhoea amongst infants less than six months old who received donations of infant formula were twice that of those who did not. On average, the rate of diarrhoea amongst children between six months and 23 months was five times the pre-earthquake rate.
Such statistics underscore the importance of teaching continued breastfeeding during and after emergencies.
Guaranteeing health and growth
Exclusive breast-feeding for the first six months of an infant's life followed by continued breastfeeding – with the appropriate supplementation – until the age of two is the single most effective means of guaranteeing infants’ health and growth.
Infants who are breastfed in their early childhood grow to be bigger, stronger and better educated than those who are not. With campaigns to socialize the practice of breastfeeding by mothers of young infants being intensified throughout the country, communities facing sudden emergencies and natural disasters are becoming increasingly prepared to care for their infants under these stressful conditions.