11 March 2010

Kenya: Mothers' Protest at Withdrawal of Free Formula Milk

Nairobi — Provision of free formula milk in public health centres for HIV positive mothers has been halted drawing protests from the women.

The government says the move is aimed at promoting exclusive use of breast milk for the first six months. However, the mothers say the directive is impractical because they cannot afford enough food for themselves to generate milk.

The government says it took the decision after studies showed that survival rates of breast-fed babies born of HIV positive mothers is higher than those on formula milk.

"Several studies have established that there is no difference in HIV transmission between babies on exclusive breastfeeding and those on formula milk," says Dr Martin Sirengo of the National Aids/STD Control Programme (Nascop).

However, other sources within the health ministries say the government abandoned the free formula milk programme as it could not sustain it financially.

"Some experts argue that since survival of babies on formula and those on exclusive breastfeeding was not significantly different, the most affordable and sustainable option is breastfeeding," says a source.

To beat the government directive, HIV positive women are now delivering in public hospitals and then enrolling with NGOs to get free formula milk. Donor-funded NGOs are the only ones providing such milk especially to poor women.

"Because I cannot generate enough breast milk, I wean my babies at two months. Six months is unworkable," said Ms Everlyne Atieno from Mathare North.

Ms Rose Kimanze, who was diagnosed with HIV during her ante-natal visit in 2008, also says the new directive is too harsh. "All along I was convinced that I would pass the virus to my baby if I breastfeed, now the new advice is not making any sense to me," she says.

The government on the other hand insists it will only promote exclusive breastfeeding under its Prevention of Mother to Child Transmission (PMTCT) programme.

Breastfeeding is culturally acceptable, affordable, and is feasible, especially in cases where the mother has not disclosed her HIV status to the husband and other family members, government officials argue.

"Any decision we take is evidence-based, and we have found children born to HIV positive mothers and who are exclusively breastfed for six months have better chance of survival than those on formula milk," says Dr John Ong'ech, a reproductive health consultant at Kenyatta National Hospital.

While the government argues that this decision is in the best interest of the woman and the baby, the women think otherwise. "We had been told that those who breastfeed have a 20 per cent chance of passing the virus to the baby. Now why are they telling us to breastfeed?" asks Ms Atieno.

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