UNICEF reports that in 2015, at least 2.8 million Filipino children under two years old were undernourished due to sub-optimal breastfeeding practices.
Sidebar: Why breastmilk is still the best
By AMIHAN MABALAY
MANILA – Young parents Jomari and Jaja have to work doubly hard to feed their seven-month old child formula milk. Jomari earns below minimum wage as a canteen server in a depressed area in Quezon City while his wife, a minimum wage earner, works as a sales lady in a Makati mall. Jaja has to sell make-up to earn additional income. They live with their mother with two younger siblings, and share day to day expenses.
Formula feeding has so far cost them more than P13,000 (US $244). They alternate milk brands on feeding depending on the price. When income permits, they buy the “better” brand in big two kilogram cans, which last for only a month, worth P600 ($11). When income is limited, they settle for the cheaper brand in boxes of 180 grams that last for only a week of feeding. While their child is already in the weaning stage and is eating solids, they still feed her formula milk worth P1,000 ($19) for a can of two-kilogram milk.
Unfortunately, their situation is just one of the millions of Filipino families hoodwinked by milk companies. According to World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF, up to 35 percent of earnings of workers in low-paid, formal sector jobs go to economy (cheapest) brand formula. For the child’s first year, an estimate of P20,000-P25,000 ($375-$469) of expenses for the formula milk could have been put to their savings.
Scientific studies have proven that formula for infants and young children is not only unnecessary but also dangerous. The best source of nourishment for Filipino children (and around the world) remains free – breastmilk. Breastfeeding a child exclusively until six months and continuing it for up to two years and beyond will save a third of a family’s yearly income. Ditching dairy will make a big impact on each family’s economic condition.
Ensuring optimal breastfeeding improves human capital development, and reduces health expenditures not only for families and but also for the government, according to the WHO and Unicef.
During the ASEAN Breastfeeding Forum last August 2017 held in Manila, both the WHO and Unicef urged the Philippine government to increase national investments for breastfeeding as part of programs in health and nutrition.
At the said forum, Global Breastfeeding Collective representative Dylan Walters said that breastfeeding is the most cost-effective investment a country can make. Walters added that with this evidence-based presentation of the economic gains, there isn’t much reason for any government to dismiss the approach.
The group said that an annual investment of only US$4.70 per newborn is required to increase the global rate of exclusive breastfeeding among children under six months to the global target of 50 per cent by 2025. Increased global target by 2025 will generate $300 billion in additional economic gains across lower-and middle-income countries as a result of cognitive development and child survival rates, the group adds.
Improved rates of breastfeeding lead to improved health and development for children, an improved health for women. These will result in improved cognitive development leading to higher learning and educational attainment, thereby increasing productivity and wages, which will translate to higher gross domestic product per nation.
UNICEF Philippines Representative Lotta Sylwander emphasized that “children’s right to life, healthy growth and development is non-negotiable. This is why we need support from the highest level of government in advancing policies and supporting investments for our children and mothers’ health and nutrition, right at the onset of pregnancy and all the way to the child’s second birthday.”
Low breastfeeding practices
Sadly, however, merely 40 per cent of children younger than six months globally are breastfed exclusively and only 23 countries have achieved exclusive breastfeeding rates above 60 per cent, according to the Global Breastfeeding Scorecard released last year. The study evaluated 194 nations.
The Philippines’s breastfeeding rate is at a low of 34 per cent, (exclusive breastfeeding under six months). WHO and UNICEF relate this to the critical state of malnutrition and undernutrition among Filipino children.
UNICEF reports that in 2015, at least 2.8 million Filipino children under two years old were undernourished due to sub-optimal breastfeeding practices. As a result, 7,500 Filipino children under two years of age die annually due to undernutrition resulting from inadequate breastfeeding practice.
This despite the Philippines having enacted landmark laws – Milk Code EO 51 (1986), Rooming-in and Breastfeeding Act of 1992 (RA 7600), Expanded Breastfeeding Promotion Act of 2009 (RA 10028). The problem lies with the implementation.
In 2013, only 34 percent of provincial governments, 56 percent of city governments, and 33 percent of municipal governments have translated the national policy into local legislation.
There are also numerous reports of milk code violations. In February, a report by UK paper the Guardian and international organization Save the Children () revealed the violations of thr milk industry in the country. The joint investigation revealed that giant milk companies use “aggressive, clandestine and often illegal methods to target mothers” in poor countries to encourage them to choose powdered milk over breastfeeding. The investigation covered most deprived areas of the Philippines and found that Nestlé and three other companies were offering doctors, midwives and local health workers free trips to lavish conferences, meals, tickets to entertainment shows and even gambling chips in return for their loyalty.
Meanwhile, the Department of Health was reported to have their own investigation of the violation but has not yet publicly given updates since.
International lactation consultant and activist Nona Andaya-Castillo laments that despite breastfeeding laws, there are major government policies that lead to low breastfeeding practice such as continued importation of milk. In 2017 the country’s milk import was $903.1 million, marking a 16-year high. The government imports milk yearly, despite high global prices.
Meanwhile, according to world market research firm Euromonitor, dairy sales in developed countries such as US and UK are declining as plant-based milks boom. The Economist publication attributed this to consumers’ growing interest to eliminate dairy milk mostly for health, welfare or environmental reasons. This awareness is also attributed to the growing plant-based or vegan diet movements worldwide.
As a result, there is a surplus in countries where we import our supply. Andaya-Castillo explains that in effect, importing this surplus means the Philippines, a developing country is being dumped with unwanted animal milk products.
Hard-earned initiatives and gains will be futile if such national policies persist. But global breastfeeding initiatives are ever-growing for breastfeeding. With this, it is high time for the Philippines to embark on a paradigm shift, to regard breastfeeding not only as a health concern for children and mothers but to view it in the macro level, as a driver for national economic development.