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In Botswana, Using Infant Formula Instead of Breastmilk Proved Deadly

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This is a truly tragic story. More than 500 children in Botswana died during a diarrhea epidemic, most likely because they did not breastfeed. Their moms were using formula because of a government health campaign aimed at stopping the spread of HIV. Here’s part of a Boston Globe story.
Doctors noticed two troubling things about the limp, sunken-eyed children who flooded pediatric wards across Botswana during the rainy season in early 2006: They were dying from diarrhea, a malady that is rarely fatal in Nkange. And few of their mothers were breast-feeding, a practice once all but universal.
After the outbreak was over and at least 532 children had died — 20 times the usual toll for diarrhea — a team of US investigators solved the riddle.
A decadelong, global push to provide infant formula to mothers with the AIDS virus had backfired in Botswana, leaving children more vulnerable to other, more immediately lethal diseases, the US team found after investigating the outbreak at the request of Botswana’s government.
The findings joined a growing body of research suggesting that supplying formula to mothers with HIV — an effort led by global health groups such as UNICEF — has cost at least as many lives as it has saved. The nutrition and antibodies that breast milk provide are so crucial to young children that they outweigh the small risk of transmitting HIV, which researchers calculate at about 1 percent per month of breast-feeding….
Botswana, with an extensive public water system, good roads, and a legacy of competent governance, joined the UNICEF-led effort and agreed to pay for the program as a standard service to new mothers.
There were skeptics. Some international public health specialists, including Coovadia, cautioned that few Africans had the means to prepare formula in a sanitary manner — a process that requires access to clean water, utensils, formula powder, and heat for sterilization.
And even for those who could make formula safely, some specialists warned, breast-feeding’s other health benefits could not easily be replaced.

2 Responses to “In Botswana, Using Infant Formula Instead of Breastmilk Proved Deadly”

This is so tragic… thanks for sharing this story, Andi. I’ll mention it later on my own blog.

The issue of infant formula is a global problem.
For decades, science has proven, and pediatricians confirm, that breastfeeding is far and away the best way to feed infants: better nutrition, better immunity, better mother-baby bonding, better physical health for the mother…the list goes on. Still, because of our infatuation with new things (like plastic bottles, instant food, disposable anything, etc.) and the increasing need and desire of mothers to work in the marketplace, we have been led away from the miraculous blessing of breastfeeding and into the world of artificial baby formulas. The result: today, fewer and fewer women breastfeed.
In America, it has become an institutional problem. Over the years, the companies that make infant formula have forged questionable partnerships with hospitals to provide free samples of formula along with free coupons to new mothers, even while hospitals say they promote the more natural alternative, breastfeeding. At a time when many new U.S. mothers can’t even afford health insurance, they are encouraged to spend money on formula that they don’t need. While bottle feeding is a personal option and some may argue that giving free formula samples helps low income mothers, there is nothing cheaper than breastfeeding! Even more important, infants born into poverty are the most needy of the healthy aspects of breast milk!
This is a decades-long issue of babies vs. big business. It is time for us to use our power of influence on behalf of healthier families. We can inspire change by contacting hospitals, doctors and government officials to speak truth to power.
You can read more of my commentary and some background on the issue at my blog, InSpiritry – InSpiration for the Greater Good:, where I welcome comments!
We can be a blessing!

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