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UNICEF in Emergencies & Humanitarian Action

Breastfeeding a crucial priority for child survival in emergencies

© UNICEF/NYHQ2008-1374/Pietrasik
A nurse shows a new mother the correct way to breastfeed her baby in the maternity ward of Pottuvil Government Hospital in Sri Lanka’s eastern Ampara District. The facility serves 45,000 people, many of whom have been displaced by the 2004 tsunami or civil conflict.

NEW YORK, USA, 31 July 2009 – UNICEF and the World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action are commemorating World Breastfeeding Week, 1-7 August 2009, by underscoring the vital importance of breastfeeding during emergencies.

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Globally, only 38 percent of infants under the age of six months are exclusively breastfed, though research shows that optimal breastfeeding is the single most effective preventive intervention for reducing infant mortality.

“Breast milk offers an excellent source of nutrition for infants and, especially where clean water is lacking, helps keep young children safe from dangerous water-borne illnesses like diarrhoea,” said UNICEF Executive Director Ann M. Veneman.

Debunking myths

There are many myths surrounding breastfeeding during a crisis: that mothers under stress or suffering from malnutrition are unable to breastfeed, for example, or that women who have stopped lactating cannot begin again.

© UNICEF/NYHQ2007-0107/Delvigne-Jean
At the Chupanga camp for displaced people in central Mozambique, a woman breastfeeds her infant while speaking with a UNICEF education officer.

More damaging is the common donor impulse to send infant formula or breast milk substitutes to disaster zones, undermining breastfeeding practices already in place and efforts to get new mothers to nurse.

“Often, [donated infant formula] is one of the first things that come in,” said UNICEF Nutrition Specialist Christiane Rudert, “because there is a misperception that most children are already being fed formula.”

After the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, formula donations sent to affected areas resulted in immediate decreased rates of breastfeeding and higher rates of diarrhoea and mortality among young children. Only a large-scale breastfeeding promotion programme – supported “down to the village level,” said Ms. Rudert – was able to offset the effects of formula.

“In those areas where they implemented [training and promotion], breastfeeding rates increased, and many of the new mothers actually initiated breastfeeding,” she added.

Overcoming odds

In fact, some of the countries that have shown the largest increases in breastfeeding rates are those that have experienced humanitarian emergencies.

© UNICEF/NYHQ2008-0873/LeMoyne
A woman breastfeeds her baby near the cathedral in the flood-damaged port city of Gonaives, Haiti, in the aftermath of the successive hurricanes and tropical storms that hit the country in September 2008.

Fourteen countries have shown better than 20 per cent increases since 1995. Among them are drought-stricken Madagascar; civil-war ravaged Sri Lanka; and Pakistan, where recovery from a devastating earthquake was followed by massive displacement due to conflict.

Ms. Rudert noted significant progress on breastfeeding rates in Zambia, Mali, Ghana and Benin, in particular.

“Many countries that are facing very challenging situations and have very few resources, nevertheless, with a comprehensive approach and support from all parts of government and partners, are actually able to do this,” she said.

Protection from malnutrition

Emergencies can strike anywhere, at any time. But the infants and young children most vulnerable to the malnutrition and disease that follows can also be the best protected, with the fortification of nutrients and antibodies inherent in breast milk.

But mothers must be given priority in order to provide for their children. World Breastfeeding Week 2009 is an opportunity to highlight the power of breastfeeding to policy-makers, donors and the public alike – and to ensure that it is a priority during emergency response.




31 July 2009:
UNICEF correspondent Elizabeth Kiem reports on the importance of breastfeeding for mothers and children in emergency situations.
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