By Andrew Jacobs
The New York Times, July 8, 2018
A resolution to encourage breast-feeding was expected to be approved quickly and easily by the hundreds of government delegates who gathered this spring in Geneva for the United Nations-affiliated World Health Assembly.
A 2016 Lancet study found that universal breast-feeding would prevent 800,000 child deaths a year across the globe and yield $300 billion in savings from reduced health care costs and improved economic outcomes for those reared on breast milk.
Based on decades of research, the resolution says that mother’s milk is healthiest for children and countries should strive to limit the inaccurate or misleading marketing of breast milk substitutes.
Then the United States delegation, embracing the interests of infant formula manufacturers, upended the deliberations.
American officials sought to water down the resolution by removing language that called on governments to “protect, promote and support breast-feeding” and another passage that called on policymakers to restrict the promotion of food products that many experts say can have deleterious effects on young children.
When that failed, they turned to threats, according to diplomats and government officials who took part in the discussions. Ecuador, which had planned to introduce the measure, was the first to find itself in the cross hairs.
The Americans were blunt: If Ecuador refused to drop the resolution, Washington would unleash punishing trade measures and withdraw crucial military aid. The Ecuadorean government quickly acquiesced.
Health advocates scrambled to find another sponsor for the resolution, but at least a dozen countries, most of them poor nations in Africa and Latin America, backed off, citing fears of retaliation, according to officials from Uruguay, Mexico and the United States.
In the end, the Americans’ efforts were mostly unsuccessful. It was the Russians who ultimately stepped in to introduce the measure — and the Americans did not threaten them.
A Russian delegate said the decision to introduce the breast-feeding resolution was a matter of principle.
“We’re not trying to be a hero here, but we feel that it is wrong when a big country tries to push around some very small countries, especially on an issue that is really important for the rest of the world,” said the delegate, who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
By Don McCanne, M.D.
It is almost beyond belief that United States delegates at the World Health Assembly of WHO opposed a resolution to “protect, promote and support breast-feeding.” It is difficult to imagine any other reason than that the Trump administration representatives place a much higher priority on protecting, promoting and supporting the baby formula business than they do on protecting and nurturing the health of the world’s infants.
Even the Russians, who stepped in to introduce the resolution, said it was a matter of principle. By extrapolation, it seems that the Trump administration is unprincipled. Threatening retaliation against poorer nations if they supported breast feeding? “Unprincipled” is too mild of a word. Considering that they are placing corporate interests above the people, perhaps “corrupt” is a more accurate term.
Stay informed! Visit www.pnhp.org/qotd to sign up for daily email updates.