For babies in disasters, breast is best

After each typhoon, earthquake or flood in disaster-prone Southeast Asia, well-meaning individuals and groups donate infant formula, not realising the dangers it can pose to children in a crisis.

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Breast-milk substitutes in disaster-hit areas where clean drinking water is scarce have led to cases of diarrhoea, the second leading cause of death for children under five and a key cause of malnutrition among young children, experts say.

“Most people don’t realise how dangerous that is. In pretty much every emergency in this region, we see infant formula donated,” UNICEF regional nutrition specialist Dorothy Foote told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“Instead of infant formula, communities and mothers need to understand how important it is to keep breastfeeding.”

Infant formula is aggressively marketed in Southeast Asia.

However, in disaster-hit areas, water supplies and infrastructure are often damaged or inaccessible, making safe drinking water – needed to mix formula and clean bottles – a rare commodity and increasing the risk of disease.

Giving out breast-milk substitutes and baby bottles during emergencies should be avoided, said a recent report by UNICEF, the World Health Organisation and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

“Many do not know that this is an inappropriate donation that amplifies risks of malnutrition, disease and death for young children,” the report said.

Foote said many women did not realise that if they switched to formula and breastfed less, their bodies would decrease milk production.

“If she stops (breastfeeding) to give her baby donated formula, then she may not have milk when the donations stop, or not enough money to continue formula,” she said.