Breastfeeding: A Vital Emergency Response
Are you ready?
OBJECTIVES of WORLD BREASTFEEDING WEEK 2009
- To draw attention to the vital role that breastfeeding plays in emergencies worldwide.
- To stress the need for active protection and support of breastfeeding before and during emergencies.
- To inform mothers, breastfeeding advocates, communities, health professionals, governments, aid agencies, donors, and the media on how they can actively support breastfeeding before and during an emergency.
- To mobilise action and nurture networking and collaboration between those with breastfeeding skills and those involved in emergency response.
- Children are the most vulnerable in emergencies – child mortality can soar from 2 to 70 times higher than average due to diarrhoea, respiratory illness and malnutrition.
- Breastfeeding is a life saving intervention and protection is greatest for the youngest infants. Even in non-emergency settings, non-breastfed babies under 2 months of age are six times more likely to die.
- Emergencies can happen anywhere in the world. Emergencies destroy what is ‘normal,’ leaving caregivers struggling to cope and infants vulnerable to disease and death.
- During emergencies, mothers need active support to continue or re-establish breastfeeding.
- Emergency preparedness is vital. Supporting breastfeeding in non-emergency settings will strengthen mothers’ capacity to cope in an emergency.
This year's WABA World Breastfeeding Week, August 1-7 2009, is concentrating on breastfeeding in emergency situations.
Such emergencies are often closer than we think, given the problematic nature of powdered infant formula, with its need of both heated clean water and excellent hygiene conditions for its safe use. And it's so easy to think you are insulated from the harm it can cause to not breastfeed, if you live in a world where clean water and heating for it is common place. The simple fact is that clean water and heating materials are often casualties within hours in even minor emergencies. I once spent a week without water in Glasgow, when the pipes froze solid, and we had to resort to bottled water to drink and wash in. Ice storms, such as the one that hit Glasgow, can freeze you out of water in a matter of hours.
Hurricane Katriona, which hit New Orleans in the USA, wrecked even the sophisticated support structures we associate with being 'In the West'. Babies went hungry when clean water and heating disappeared in the floods - often the formula disappeared too. The worst story I've heard of Katriona to date, was the Mum left on a roof for five days with her formula fed two week old baby. The most distressing part of this tale is not that the baby died a few hours after rescue... it was that the Mum was then treated for engorgement of her recently post-partum breasts. That we've divorced ourselves so completely from our normative biology - to the point that mothers and new babies were being discharged out of maternity units into the hurricane zone, with doctors unable to say the words "You're putting your baby's life at risk." and that a distraught mother watched her baby slowly dehydrate to the point of death, with milk in her own breasts... leaves me bewildered and speechless. Truly speechless.
Formula in baby bottles in emergencies is never the answer: that much is undeniable. Sometimes, formula given in an easily cleaned stainless steel cup, is a short term solution to the mother being supported to relactate, in order to feed her baby safely as she rebuilds their lives and her community. Or whilst a grandmother relactates to feed her grandchild if the mother has died. Yet well intentioned support agencies, and individuals, still set about gathering stores of donated formula, donated baby bottles, and trying to ship them to mothers who will watch their babies grow sick and die from such well intentioned recklessness. Worse, many breastfeeding mothers in communities in such calamity, often respond to the free giving out of formula and baby bottles, by stopping breastfeeding themselves.
Donate a baby bottle and formula in emergency: donate death.
Again, that such a basic connection to our own biology is severed, in times of such extreme stress and the need for it is at its greatest... speechless.
World Breastfeeding Week have produced a variety of excellent resources to support this year's them, and they can be found here.
There is a pledge scheme for those who can run local events to raise awareness of this crucial issue. Details here.
I'll be passing on other materials in the run up to August. Please propagate information and the URLs about WBW far and wide - help get the message out.