Disaster in the Philippines: Why overzealous breastfeeding promotion has no place in relief plans

Dear FFF,

We are based in Manila which, thankfully, was spared from the brunt of typhoon Haiyan. As you may be aware, our fellow Filipinos from the other islands of Leyte and Palawan suffered from this catastrophe. Aid has been slow in coming, and the situation is now miserable and desperate. Donations from all over the world are coming in, but the logistics of getting them to the people who need them are difficult because many of the islands are isolated and cannot be easily reached. Many have not eaten since Saturday. They also do not have clean drinking water and are living in the streets amidst rubble and dead bodies.

Which brings me to my question/issue – What is the best way to feed a baby in a crisis situation like this?

 Our Department of Health has BANNED donations of formula milk – powdered or pre-mix – because of the perils of formula and because it undermines breastfeeding.  According to the Department of Health, the best solution is to breastfeed, or if the mother is no longer breastfeeding, to give support towards re-lactation. If these are not feasible, then the next alternative is wet nursing. I do understand that this is the exact reason why formula has been deemed “dangerous – because preparation of formula in unsafe, unclean conditions (including using unclean water and bottles) can lead to diarrhea and infant mortality.  However, I also believe that the options given by the Department of Health practically require a mother to choose between death of a child by starvation and death by diarrhea.  They say re-lactation as if it was like turning on a switch. Most women who have weaned young babies likely had problems lactating in the first place. How likely is it that she would be able to re-lactate in the midst of the stress, chaos, and misery of a calamity? The Department of Health says that the solution is to provide breastfeeding support, counselling, and breastfeeding-friendly setups where breastfeeding can be encouraged.  In a situation where the most basic of necessities such as water, shelter, and medical care have not even reached the victims, it does not appear that anyone is currently equipped to provide these conditions that would foster breastfeeding in a crisis situation. Wet-nursing or donated milk is the next alternative presented. On wet-nursing, I do wonder if that is really a safe option, since it is possible to also contract disease from tainted breast milk. Again, in a calamity situation, who has the time and resources to check for infectious diseases when looking for a wet nurse?  On donated milk, I concede that this is probably the most viable option, but given the sheer number of people affected, I do not think that it is a sustainable source of nutrition for all the babies affected (given that several hundred thousand homes were affected). Babies need constant nutrition, and while donated milk may augment at the start, is it really sustainable to provide for the nutritional needs of all the victims in the coming days before they are moved to a safe and clean environment? 

And so, I think, banning pre-mix formula donations is a case of letting the principle of promoting breastfeeding defeat the principle of saving as many lives as possible.  Even the American Academy of Pediatrics concedes that pre-mixed formula is the last alternative when the other options are not feasible.  Our government, however, has taken the firm stance against formula and will refuse donations of pre-mixed formula.  Incidentally, pre-mixed is not readily available in the Philippines, but I’m sure it can be procured from other countries or even by local formula manufacturers if only it were allowed.

– S. T.

 

After receiving this email, I logged on to my computer to find several sources reiterating what the author had said. According to Gulf News,

Government and private hospitals in Manila called on nursing mothers nationwide to donate milk for babies in typhoon devastated central Philippines… Explaining the aim of the campaign, (Dr. Jessica Anne Dumalag of Manila’s Philippine General Hospital’s Human Milk Bank) said, “Milk from lactating mothers is preferred over formula milk, which is basically processed cow’s milk.”

The department of health which has been promoting breast feeding has a policy to prohibit the donation of formula milk for babies in temporary shelters, during a calamity….“Children are more exposed to allergy when they consume formula milk. We are also not sure if the water used to prepare formula milk is clean (that is why it is not recommended),” said Dumalag….Government and private hospitals including private organisations were organised to accept donations of human milk. Milk donations will be pasteurised, frozen, and kept in insulated containers before they are sent to evacuation centres in central Philippines, Dumalag said.

 

Concerns over water and sterile preparation of bottle feeds during disaster situations are valid and necessary. Several years ago, we had a lengthy debate here on FFF about this very topic; I’m well aware that if relactation or wet nursing is a possibility, it is without a doubt the safest option in natural disaster settings. Bacteria-filled water, poor sanitation, and lack of resources make formula feeding a deadly proposition; when formula feeding is seen to be “encouraged” in an at-risk population, lactation may be interrupted which can have long-term consequences (i.e., the family would then need formula on an ongoing basis, which could prove difficult if money or resources were an issue). I’m not disputing this, nor am I ignoring the fact that formula marketing in the Philippines is a hot button issue at the moment, and that breastfeeding promotion is in overdrive for reasons that I can’t fully comprehend, as a privileged Western woman.

But that’s not what this is about.

A policy that forbids powdered formula donations and encourages breastmilk donations is simply replacing one easily contaminated substance with another. Donated breastmilk – and this includes breastmilk procured by breastfeeding-related Facebook pages, speaking of privileged Western women – requires careful packaging, transport and refrigeration, not to mention screening for HIV and hepatitis B (the Philippines still has a low rate of HIV infection, but it’s rapidly increasing – TIME reports that every 3 hours a new case is now being diagnosed). There are still the same risks involved with sterilizing bottles, regardless of what’s filling them; nowhere in these news reports are people discussing the importance of cup feeding, for example – something that can significantly cut the chance of bacterial contamination.

There is, however, a substance that can be easily transported without refrigeration; that has a relatively stable and long shelf life; and which can be fed to babies in a perfectly sterile manner, at least in the short-term. That substance is ready-to-feed, pre-mixed formula, served in “nursette” bottles with pre-sterilized nipples (like these).

Granted, the cost of these supplies is rather high. But while I haven’t done the math, I’d venture to guess that the cost of procuring and safely distributing donor breastmilk would be just as prohibitive. And if people are ready and willing to donate RTF and pre-sterilized nipples, what would be the harm in allowing them to do so?

The answer is none. There would be no harm, except, perhaps, to the “cause” of breastfeeding promotion. That cause may be noble and important, but right now, it’s irrelevant. To put breastfeeding promotion ahead of feeding infants safely and in a timely manner is petty, short-sighted, and cruel. Think about it: would we discourage donations of processed, high-fat canned foods to disaster victims because of concerns over obesity, GMOs, or the environment? Or would we ensure that their immediate needs were met, and worry about preaching better health habits after the roads had been rebuilt and displaced families were settled into safe, warm homes?

The fact that Dr. Dumalog, quoted above, uses “allergies to formula” as a reason for forbidding RTF formula donations speaks to the irrationality of this policy. If a child is allergic to formula, there is also a chance s/he will react to something in a stranger’s milk. A breastfed baby may indeed react poorly to formula at first, but this is a case where the mom should receive plenty of assistance and encouragement to continue breastfeeding – not told to feed her baby via bottle with donated milk. With breastfeeding rates in the Philippines being what they are, it stands to reason that most of the babies without lactating mothers present are already formula fed – therefore they will probably do just fine with donated formula, even if it’s not the same brand. We’re talking about a little gas here, not a full-scale anaphylactic reaction.

Gulf News reports that “groups that promote breast-feeding in six hospitals and in several private clinics are part of the campaign.” A disaster situation is no place for “promotion” of anything but disaster relief. And the scariest thing about this is that the Filipino government isn’t alone in letting a hatred of formula get in the way of ration. The American Academy of Pediatrics also advocates for “screened human donor milk” before RTF (although they do, at least, acknowledge that this is an option). I have yet to see one study or agenda-free policy paper that actually looks at the viability of using donor milk as opposed to RTF formula with pre-sterilized nipples during disasters. If there is a logical reason behind these recommendations, I’d love to see it. All I can find are convoluted references to “breastfeeding being interrupted” (not an issue if we’re talking about babies who are already formula fed) and concerns about sterility and availability (absolutely valid, but just as valid in regards to donated milk, if not more so).

Governments must stop putting ideology above practicality. We are in desperate need of a neutral, informed, and rational voice to come up with better policies for infant feeding – policies that do not throw the cart before the horse, and end up running over its citizens in the process.

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