At a glance: Philippines

Mothers encouraged to breastfeed in aftermath of Philippines flooding

UNICEF Image
© UNICEF Philippines/2009
Families made homeless by flooding in the Philippines take shelter in the Alabang Elementary School basketball court in Muntinlupa City, Metro Manila.

A new UNICEF report, 'Tracking Progress on Child and Maternal Nutrition', says undernutrition is a factor in a third of all deaths of children under five. Here is one in a series of related stories.

By Friena Guerrera

MANILA, Philippines, 12 November 2009 – Some seven weeks after Tropical Storm Ketsana – known locally as Ondoy – caused massive flooding in the Philippines, thousands remain homeless. Many of the displaced are families with young children, pregnant mothers and newborn babies.

At the Alabang Elementary School in Manila, some 450 families live side by side in classrooms on any available floor space. They have been here since 26 September, the day the tropical storm dumped a month's worth of rain on the Philippines.

About 180 families still call the school's basketball court home. With each passing day, many are losing hope that they will have a home to return to when they leave the evacuation centre.

Risk of disease

Among the sea of displaced people, Analyn Escolano sits on flattened pieces of cardboard on the cold concrete floor cradling Jenalyn, her five-month-old niece. Jenalyn's mother, Bernalyn, has just left to bring the infant's twin sister, Joralyn, to the health centre to be treated for diarrhoea.

UNICEF Image
© UNICEF Philippines/2009
A breastfeeding counsellor talks to nursing mothers in an evacuation centre for families made homeless by the Metro Manila floods.

"Her stool is like water and it's difficult to clean her well," says Analyn.  "There aren't enough donated diapers to go around for all the babies in the centre. It's especially hard on my sister because she has twins to take care of."

Joralyn is one of many babies across the flood zone who have developed diarrhoea and other illnesses due to unsanitary conditions, stretched health resources and a lack of safe water and other basic necessities in the aftermath of the storm.

Young children most vulnerable

The little girl's mother is a strong believer in breastfeeding. Since evacuating her home, however, she has found it difficult to feed both twins and usually keeps Jenalyn to her breast while giving Joralyn infant formula. She worries that the stress of her situation is making her milk weak.

"It is difficult to sleep in the basketball court," says Bernalyn. " Life was hard already before the storm. Now it's like we're starting over again with even less."

Young children such as Jenalyn and Joralyn are the most vulnerable in emergency situations. Because their immune systems are still developing, they are especially at risk of diarrhoea, dehydration and even death from water, milk or food that is non-sterile or improperly prepared in unhygienic conditions.

'The most complete food'

But despite these dangers, there is a safe, natural way to care for babies in emergencies: breastfeeding.

Delia Gernali, a counsellor with the Pembo Breastfeeding Group, is one of about 20 women who have been visiting evacuation centres in the Philippines. The counsellors educate mothers about the benefits of breast milk; the importance of exclusive breastfeeding from birth to six months of age; and continued breastfeeding, together with safe and adequate complementary foods, from six months to two years and beyond – particularly in times of crisis.

"We're trying to show them that it's important that they keep breastfeeding," she says. "Breast milk is still the most complete food a mother can give her baby. Aside from providing everything a baby needs, they don't have to buy it, they won't run out of it and it's always available."

Breastfeeding can also comfort both babies and mothers, and can help lower stress hormone levels.

Promoting breastfeeding

UNICEF has partnered with local groups like Pembo to conduct counselling sessions that encourage mothers to breastfeed. It also supports re-lactation through the use of mothers' own expressed milk or donated milk from a human milk bank.  Recently, the Philippine General Hospital's milk bank received about 200 four-ounce bottles of breast milk from an international organization. 

The director of the hospital's Lactation Unit and Human Milk Bank said the milk is going to those who need it most, including orphaned infants and the mothers of twins.

Meanwhile, life goes on in hundreds of evacuation centres like Alabang Elementary. Mothers and babies are learning to adjust and stay healthy as they wait to return home. Under the dim lights of the basketball court, Jenalyn and Joralyn nod off to sleep, comforted and content against their mother's breasts.


 

 

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