Real lives



Breastfeeding saves lives

© UNICEF Philippines/2012/JMaitem
Lina Duave, 27, breastfeeds her six month old daughter Alexis at an evacuation centre in the village of Iponan in Cagayan de Oro, Mindanao, Philippines

by Anna Villanueva

CAGAYAN DE ORO CITY, Philippines, January 2012 – Even as they are facing the loss of property and deaths in the family, survivors of Typhoon Washi (local name Sendong), are determined to restore a sense of normalcy to their everyday lives.

Mothers in evacuation centers in the cities of Cagayan de Oro and nearby Iligan in Mindanao remain committed to their babies’ health by continuing to breastfeed them, despite the crowded situation in temporary shelters.

Surviving raging waters
Lina Duave, a resident of Sitio Bulao, Cagayan de Oro, is mother to six month old baby boy Alexis. At about 1am on December 16, 2011, raging floodwaters brought about by Tropical Storm Sendong (international name Washi) entered their house. In less than five minutes, the water rose from ankle level, to past their roof, completely wiping out their entire home.

Together with her husband, Lina and the baby survived the flashflood by quickly climbing up the mango tree next to their house. Their young family stayed up in the tree for nine hours together with five other families. They waited for the floodwaters to subside before coming down to safety.

Since surviving the disaster, the Duave family has been seeking refuge at the Iponan Multi-Purpose Court, which has been converted into an evacuation site.

Breastfeeding as critical and essential
As soon as their family was relocated to the evacuation center, one of the first decisions that Lina made was to continue to breastfeed Alexis, whom she had been exclusively breastfeeding for six months. Exclusive breastfeeding means giving the baby just the mother’s milk and nothing else, not even water. Lina is bent on giving only breast milk to her baby, despite having access to powdered milk substitutes that have been given by well-meaning donors.

“During the prenatal check-ups that I had before giving birth, I remember being told that breast milk is the best food for my baby. It has the complete nutrients that the baby needs,” Lina shares. “I am also aware that the powdered milk available here is not suitable for babies.”

Breast milk gives infants and young children complete nutrition, promotes good health, and dramatically reduces their vulnerability to diseases. It is also affordable and economical. Families who lost everything to the typhoon do not have to worry about spending for food for their babies.

Breastfeeding saves lives
In the aftermath of calamities, including devastating typhoons, infants are considered as some of the most vulnerable victims.

“During emergency situations, the mortality risk of infants rise up to 500%,” shares Dr. Paul Zambrano, UNICEF Philippines’ Nutrition Officer. This is because they are exposed to factors that make them susceptible to diseases like diarrhea and pneumonia. “The safest and most effective way to protect infants and young children from these risk factors is for mothers to continue breastfeeding them. The need to breastfeed is heightened during emergency situations,” Dr. Zambrano says.

While mothers are in evacuation centers, they hardly have access to clean, potable water. This means the water that is mixed with powdered milk is usually unsafe or even contaminated. When milk substitutes prepared with unclean water is given to babies, this causes diarrhea and other water-borne diseases, which can eventually lead to death.

Bottles and other feeding instruments are often exposed to unsanitary conditions in most crowded temporary shelters.

Even in non-emergency situations, mothers are encouraged to practice exclusive breastfeeding. Mother’s milk contains important nutrients to nourish babies and help build their immune system.

6 month old Alexis is measured for signs of malnutrition with a MUAC tape. UNICEF provides malnutrition test equipment and medical supplies to support mothers and children especially during emergencies. © UNICEF Philippines/2012/JMaitem  

Lina’s testimony
Three weeks after surviving the raging floodwaters, Lina still continues to exclusively breastfeed Alexis. “I don’t feel shy or embarrassed breastfeeding in the evacuation center.” She has noticed that despite being in a cramped temporary shelter, her baby has not gotten sick and is still easy to feed. When volunteers came to the Iponan evacuation center to assess babies for severe acute malnutrition, Alexis was given a clean bill of health. Lina shares the other benefits of breastfeeding that she has noticed, “At night, it is our bonding activity. After breastfeeding, the baby falls asleep easily. I also get to sleep early because I don’t have to worry about preparing milk or washing bottles after feeding.”

UNICEF promotes, protects breastfeeding during emergency situations
UNICEF, together with the Department of Health and NGO partners, has been working actively to provide support for breastfeeding mothers.

UNICEF has been able to reach around 2,000 children under two years old, and around 2,000 pregnant and lactating women. It has spent around US$400,000 in nutrition supplies and services, which includes breastfeeding counseling and nutrition surveys. 

Timely assessments to determine the number of breastfeeding and lactating mothers in various evacuation centers have been conducted. Breastfeeding corners and child-friendly areas in evacuation sites are being established so that mothers can have privacy and interact with other mothers.

© UNICEF Philippines/2012/JMaitem

Breastfeeding mothers have also been tapped as ambassadors to encourage fellow survivors to continue breastfeeding, or to shift from mixed feeding to exclusive breastfeeding. Barangay Health Workers and Barangay Nutrition Scholars have been mobilized to conduct counseling for mothers, making them aware that it is possible to re-lactate and re-establish the bond that breastfeeding brings between mother and child, even after a traumatizing experience. Information campaigns are also being conducted, to help encourage fathers or other family members to take part in taking care of babies.

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