BY THE EDITOR
China needs a law to protect breastfeeding, an area in which the world’s most populous country and second largest economy lags many smaller and less developed countries.
The rate of exclusive breastfeeding for infants under six months old in China is as low as 29.2 percent, below the world average of 43 percent, according to a survey unveiled by China Development Research Foundation (CDRF) on Monday.
The survey, conducted between Sept 2017 to Jan 2018 among over 10,000 mothers with infant children across the country, also found that only 11.3 percent of the participants breastfed their children within an hour of birth, far below the world average of 45 percent.
Fang Jin, deputy secretary general of the foundation, attributed the low rate of breastfeeding to inappropriate marketing of breast milk substitutes and easy access to such products, like baby formula.
“With 1/5 of the world’s total population, and fewer new born babies, China consumes 1/3 of the world’s total sales of baby formula,” he said, adding China need a new law to “strictly” regulate sales of breast milk substitutes.
WHO and UNICEF recommend that babies are fed nothing but breast milk for their first 6 months, after which they should continue breastfeeding – as well as eating other safe and nutritionally adequate foods – until 2 years of age or beyond.
Breastfed children perform better on intelligence tests, are less likely to be overweight or obese and less prone to diabetes later in life. Women who breastfeed also have a reduced risk of breast and ovarian cancers.
Boosting breastfeeding rates would significantly reduce costs to families and governments for treatment of childhood illnesses such as pneumonia, diarrhoea and asthma, according to the WHO.
The Lancet, the British medical journal, had published a study arguing that higher rates of exclusive breastfeeding could be even more effective than improved sanitation at preventing “a large proportion of child deaths and disease” in developing countries.
The breast milk substitute business, however, is a huge one, with annual sales projected to reach $70 billion, larger than Myanmar’s total GDP, by 2019 worldwide, according to the WHO.
A total of 135, of 194, countries have in place some form of legal measure related to the International Code of Marketing of Breast-Milk Substitutes and subsequent resolutions adopted by the World Health Assembly, according to a study by WHO, UNICEF, and the International Baby Food Action Network.
WHO Member States have committed to increase the rate of exclusive breastfeeding in the first 6 months of life to at least 50 percent by 2025 as one of a set of global nutrition targets.
China’s State Council aims to raise the exclusive breastfeeding rate to 50 percent by 2020, a target which is “almost impossible to achieve” based on this week’s CDRF report, said Fang.
China had its own code, unveiled in June 1995 to resonate with the WHO, to regulate marketing of breast milk substitutes, but had it abolished in Dec 2017, leaving a legal vacuum.
This was mainly because the country merged several ministries together to form a more effective state government in recent years, according to Fang, who said the 1995 code wasn’t the only one to be abolished in 2017.
But the 1995 code still isn’t a law even if it was still in place.
China, instead, does have a forceful Advertisement Law which bans baby formula advertising. Dairy products, drinks and other food advertisements that claim to partly or completely substitute mother’s milk are banned from mass media or public venues, it stipulates.
While calling for tougher law enforcement, Fang noted a specific law to regulate marketing of breast milk substitutes is needed.
Effective marketing should not be allowed to fudge the truth that there is no equal substitute for a mother’s own milk, he noted.
The lack of public awareness as well as deficiency of support from family and social communities, including medical institutions, are also reasons why fewer mothers choose to breastfeed their children, said Fang.
The CDRF report called for measures be taken to raise public awareness, encourage medical care institutions to provide support and improve the legislation for maternity leave and childbirth insurance system.