THE World Health Organisation (WHO) on Wednesday says there is no current evidence to prove that infants can contract the Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) from breast milk of infected mothers.
The UN agency disclosed this in a document announcing the release of a new report on the marketing of breast milk substitutes commonly known as baby formulas.
“While researchers continue to test breast milk from mothers with confirmed or suspected COVID-19, current evidence indicates that it is unlikely that COVID-19 would be transmitted through breastfeeding or by giving breast milk that has been expressed by a mother who is confirmed or suspected to have COVID-19,” it stated.
The report titled Marketing of Breast‑milk Substitutes: National Implementation of the International Code was jointly produced by the WHO, United Nations Children Fund (UNICEF) and the International Baby Food Action Network (IBFAN).
It highlights how some WHO member nations have failed to restrict what it described as ‘harmful marketing’ of Breast Milk Substitutes (BMS), as a replacement to normal breastfeeding exercise, particularly during the pandemic.
Though the status report recognises Nigeria among the 11 nations that have improved their legal frameworks to discourage the promotion of BMS, it emphasised that the effort would ensure health workers and health facilities promote effective breastfeeding among mothers.
For instance, it scored Nigeria high in the overall prohibition of BMS producers from using healthcare centre to promote baby formulas.
“Over the past two years, protections against inappropriate marketing of BMS have been strengthened in 44 countries around the world,” says the WHO Status report.
“Since the 2018 report, 11 countries – Bahrain, Chad, Egypt, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Nigeria, Pakistan (Punjab), Republic of Moldova, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, United Arab Emirates and Uzbekistan – enacted new Code-related legislation or amended existing legal measures.”
On 12th May, the WHO had earlier released some recommendations for breastfeeding mother and health workers managing the disease.
Breast milk provides antibodies which fortify children against illnesses
However, on concerns of infants contracting the COVID-19 virus via breast milk, thus indirectly promoting baby formulas the UN body emphasised that breast milk still remains the best.
It maintained that till date, no active COVID-19 virus has been detected in the breast milk of any mother with confirmed or suspected COVID-19.
“Women with confirmed or suspected COVID-19 can, therefore, breastfeed if they wish to do so.”
According to the WHO, the milk from breastfeeding is imperative as it provides children with antibodies which fortify them against childhood illnesses.
The report revealed that despite efforts to stop the promotion of harmful breast-milk substitutes, countries are still falling short in protecting parents from misleading information.
“Only 79 countries prohibit the promotion of breast-milk substitutes in health facilities, and only 51 have provisions that prohibit the distribution of free or low-cost supplies within the health care system,” it said.
The report also noted how aggressive marketing of BMS is being promoted through trusted health professionals, which in turn has become a major barrier to improving new-born and child health globally.
“Health care systems must act to boost parents’ confidence in breastfeeding without industry influence so that children don’t miss out on its lifesaving benefits,” Dr Francesco Branca, Director of WHO’s Department of Nutrition and Food Safety stated.
In view of this, the WHO and UNICEF reiterated exclusive breastfeeding for babies in their first six months of life after which such should be continued with other nutritious and safe foods – until two years of age or beyond.
It explained that babies who are exclusively breastfed are 14 times less likely to die than babies who are not breastfed.
The health bodies further urged women to continue breastfeeding during the COVID-19 pandemic, even if they are confirmed positive for COVID-19.
“The numerous benefits of breastfeeding substantially outweigh the potential risks of illness associated with the virus. It is not safer to give infant formula milk,” it stated.
However, it noted that health care services aimed at supporting mothers to breastfeed, including counselling and skilled lactation support are strained as a result of the COVID-19 crisis.
According to the report, the COVID-19 infection prevention measures, such as physical distancing, has also made it difficult for community counselling and mother-to-mother support services to continue, leaving an opening for the breast-milk substitute industry to capitalize on the crisis, and diminish confidence in breastfeeding.
“As the COVID-19 pandemic progresses, health workers are being diverted to the response and health systems are overstretched. At such times, breastfeeding can protect the lives of millions of children, but new mothers cannot do it without the support of health providers,” says Dr. Victor Aguayo, UNICEF’s Chief of Nutrition.
To this end, the WHO and UNICEF called on governments to urgently strengthen legislation on the Code during the COVID-19 pandemic while also urging them not to seek or accept donations of companies producing breast-milk substitutes in emergency situations.