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Journalists’ crucial role in promoting breastfeeding in emergencies

© KOJI/2009/Nugroho
Journalists take part in workshop on breastfeeding in emergencies.

By Lely Djuhari

BOGOR, 1 August, 2009 - The crackle of a radio repeatedly broadcast news of a devastating earthquake and fears of thousands of lives lost. Sirens wailed while men and women rushed to a field carrying boxes of food aid. At a makeshift community kitchen, journalists fired questions at a woman with a batik baby holder slung on her shoulder. She reached into the folds and wiped the forehead … of a baby doll while pointing at a milk bottle and a stack of formula milk to the journalists.

This was not a real disaster but an exercise at a journalist workshop held in Bogor early August organized by UNICEF, Mercy Corps and Koji Communications. Journalists gained hands-on experience in interviewing women who took the role of mothers in the simulation. Present at the two-day event were health specialists, government officials and humanitarian workers who deal with disaster management. Chief Editor of RCTI, Indonesia’s most viewed TV station, Arief Soeditomo, acted as a moderator for the panel discussion sessions.

The workshop, held during Indonesia’s Breastfeeding Month in August, aimed to increase the awareness of journalists regarding the importance of breastfeeding not only in normal situations, but also in earthquakes, tsunami, major fires or other disasters.

It has been firmly established that exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of an infant's life followed by continued breastfeeding with the appropriate complementary feeding until the age of two is the most effective means of guaranteeing that infants health and normal growth. The benefits of breastfeeding are even more crucial during emergencies.

However, massive donations of formula milk and baby food are often given to mothers for their infants in emergency situations, said a Social Affairs Department official, Adhy Karyono.

Even in an emergency situation, it is most beneficial for infants to continue to be breastfed rather than to receive breastmilk substitutes. The often well intended provision of formula milk for babies and infant in emergency situations can have a number of serious deleterious effects.

Unless properly sterilised, bottles, teats, and other items can be contaminated by bacteria. Babies who are not breastfed are vulnerable to infection and diarrhoea. They can easily become malnourished and dehydrated and so are at high risk of death.

Speaking at a panel discussion at the workshop and referring to the Yogyakarta earthquake in 2006, when such donations were prevalent, a UNICEF Nutrition Specialist Anna Winoto stated that: “Cases of diarrhoea amongst children under two years old who received donated formula milk were twice as high as amongst those who didn’t.”


© UNICEF/2006/Estey
A mother looks at a baby amidst the ruins of her house after an earthquake.

Many of the participants said that the workshop increased their understanding on the issues at hand. “I often cover manmade or natural disasters. My concern used to be merely if children received aid or not,” said Hesti, a Kompas reporter based in Bogor. “The next time I have to report on an emergency, I want to probe deeper. Did any food and medicinal aid pass its expiry dates? Is there clean water? Was formula milk given to babies? I know now that this can be more harmful than beneficial. I need to form my questions based on evidence.”

Despite efforts conducted by midwives and other health workers to improve awareness regarding breastfeeding amongst lactating mothers, many of them believe that they need breastmilk substitutes because they are unable to breastfeed their babies properly. Dr Utami Roesli, the head of the Indonesia breastfeeding centre, says that this belief is misguided.

“It is better for a baby to be breastfed than to be provided with formula milk.  Every mother can breastfeed successfully if given the right advice and support.  In emergencies situations, Mothers should always be encouraged and supported to continue to breastfeed their babies. Breastmilk production may be affected slightly by stress of the mother, but this condition is temporary and should not lead to formula supplementation.”

Ms. Winoto added, “By giving support and counseling to mothers, they can continue to breastfeed.” Currently, there are 1,000 breastfeeding counselors in Indonesia’s 33 provinces.

In addition, breastfeeding has a positive impact on the psychological and emotional development of an infant. As the Head of Perinatologi Indonesia, Asti Praborini, states: "Breastfeeding results in a bonding between mothers and babies. They benefit not only nutritionally, but also psychologically."

Mercy Corps said that apart from large natural disasters, annual flooding in Jakarta will also need similar coordination. The media has an important role in developing awareness amongst members of the community regarding the extremely limited value and potential harm of breastmilk substitutes in emergency situations.

A UNICEF media analysis showed that the media often portrays the need for formula milk in large quantities. In fact, only a very small amount might be needed and the distribution needs to be strictly controlled and monitored. Government officials and humanitarian actors have agreed to control formula milk and food donations for babies and infants. The government regulation for disaster management has been approved as well as the decree regulating the marketing of breastmilk substitutes.





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