Here, College of Public Health Dean Laura A. Siminoff responds to the recent U.S. opposition to a WHO-approved resolution encouraging breastfeeding, a decision that shocked the international public health community.
Words matter. Among last week’s flurry of news, one story stood out to me: that the United States’ delegation to the World Health Organization aggressively attacked the wording of a WHO resolution to support breastfeeding around the world. While our presidential administration prioritizes corporate interests over consumer health regularly, this fight over words—what might be glossed over as “just details”—was striking because of its massive implications for global maternal and child wellbeing.
While support for the resolution was unanimous among other national delegations, U.S. representatives demanded the removal of language that committed “to protect, promote and support breastfeeding,” and that supported policy creation to restrict predatory marketing by infant formula manufacturers. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services portrayed the language as limiting choices for mothers who experience malnutrition or poverty. This is nothing but a straw-man argument. The WHO resolution focuses on reaffirming decades of research, underscoring the danger of misleading corporate marketing, and making it clear that breast milk is the preferred food for infants.
A massive body of evidence shows that breastfeeding reduces the risk of preventable disease for both infants and their mothers, reduces healthcare costs, and improves health outcomes much later in a child’s life. But relentless marketing by corporations in developing countries has pushed new mothers to use formula even if they are able to breastfeed. This is especially problematic in countries where mothers do not have access to clean water and infants frequently die from diarrhea and other preventable diseases. Breastmilk provides nutrients and antibodies that help protect a baby’s health and fight off infections while reducing exposure to questionable water sources. Formula does not provide these benefits.
Our WHO delegation’s fight against breastfeeding damages the United States’ standing and threatens global population health. The resolution passed with most of its original wording intact, but U.S. obstructionism here and in other joint health initiatives harms the WHO’s ability to address a wide range of preventable diseases, from diabetes to Ebola. It places our country at odds with the majority of world nations, who are increasingly united in their support of evidence-based health policies. It also suggests that our presidential administration will continue to abdicate scientific leadership in favor of corporate agendas, no matter what the long-term consequences.
As health educators, researchers and practitioners, we should remain vigilant about seemingly small bureaucratic maneuvers that have major implications for individual and population health. We should promote transparent debate on policy rather than tolerating flawed arguments and manipulation. Above all, we should champion compassion over profit. The world’s vulnerable populations depend on it.