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Global Strategy: Breastfeeding critical for child survival

UNICEF and WHO call for increased commitment to appropriate feeding practices for all infants and young children

NEW YORK, 23 March 2004 – Calling on governments to promote and protect early and exclusive breastfeeding, UNICEF and WHO today jointly launched the Global Strategy for Infant and Young Child Feeding. The document, developed over two years of global consultation, pinpoints the main problems affecting infant and young child feeding and identifies approaches to their solution.

“There is no better way than breastfeeding to make sure that a child gets the best start in life,” said UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy. “The strategy is an invaluable roadmap for governments to create supportive environments where women can make informed choices about feeding their children.”

Breastfeeding alone provides ideal nutrition and health protection for infants for the first six months of life as it provides all the nutrients, antibodies, hormones, immune factors and antioxidants an infant needs to thrive. It protects babies from diarrhoea and acute respiratory infections and stimulates their immune systems.

“Virtually all mothers can breastfeed provided they have accurate information, and support within their families and communities and from the health care system,” said Lee Jong-Wook, Director-General of WHO. “Governments should move swiftly and effectively to implement this important strategy.”

Lack of breastfeeding – and especially lack of exclusive breastfeeding during the first half-year of life – are important risk factors for infant and childhood morbidity and mortality. These risk factors are compounded by inappropriate complementary feeding as infants grow.

“Exclusive breastfeeding in the first half-year of life and continued breastfeeding coupled with appropriate foods could reduce the number of children under five who die from malnutrition,” said Lee Jong-Wook. Malnutrition is associated with more than 50 percent of deaths among children under five.

The strategy calls for a dramatic increase in the number of infants who are exclusively breastfed. Currently, about 39 percent of infants worldwide are exclusively breastfed during the first six months of life. Complementary feeding frequently begins too early or too late, and foods are often nutritionally inadequate and unsafe. Malnourished children who survive are more frequently sick and suffer the life-long consequences of impaired development.

"The long-term impact of poor feeding practices in infancy and early childhood include poor school performance, reduced productivity and impaired intellectual and social development,” Bellamy said.

In addition to stressing the link between the health and nutritional status of mothers and children, the strategy addresses the challenges of feeding in exceptionally difficult cirumstances, such as natural or man-made emergencies.

The strategy also highlights the issue of optimal feeding of the millions of children who are born to HIV-infected women each year.  While about 10-20 percent are born already infected, there is an additional risk of HIV transmission through breastfeeding – estimated to be between 5 percent and 20 percent.  This risk needs to be balanced against the increased risk of morbidity and mortality when infants are not breastfed. All HIV-infected mothers should receive information about the risks and benefits of various options and guidance in choosing the most suitable option.

The Global Strategy for Infant and Young Child Feeding, now available in six languages, was presented by UN Under Secretary-General for Management Catherine Bertini on March 23 to the Standing Committee on Nutrition session at the UN. It was distributed March 24 during a Working Group session on breastfeeding and complementary feeding and their contribution to achieving the UN Millennium Development Goals.

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For further information and to get a copy of the Global Strategy for Infant and Young Child Feeding, please contact:

Randa Saadeh, Nutrition for Health and Development, WHO.  tel (41) 22 7913315

David Porter, Media Officer, Non Communicable Disease and Mental Health, WHO tel (41) 22 7913774, 

Erin Trowbridge, UNICEF Media, New York, Tel: (212) 326-7172,

Kate Donovan, UNICEF Media, New York, Tel: (212) 326-7452

Read about WHO/UNICEF support to breastfeeding and child survival at: www.unicef.org and www.who.int

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