Nairobi — Imagine a food that is free, nutritious and has the potential to save thousands of children's lives. Well there's no need to imagine it, it already exists - a mother's milk; breastfeeding is one of the most powerful weapons we have to fight child mortality.
The 1st-7th August is World Breastfeeding Week which, each year, presents an important opportunity to put the spotlight on the importance of breastfeeding for saving children's lives. But this can't just be a one week effort; we need strong leadership and political action all year round to promote it.
According to the medical journal, the Lancet, suboptimum breastfeeding results in more than 800,000 child deaths annually. If we can ensure that every newborn is given breast milk immediately after birth and is fed only breast milk for the first six months, we can greatly increase the chance that they will survive and go on to fulfil their potential. Around one in eight of the young lives lost each year could be prevented through breastfeeding, making it one of the most effective of all ways to prevent the diseases and malnutrition that can cause child deaths.
It is estimated that 3.1 million children die from malnutrition each year. Despite significant progress in reducing child mortality, 1 in 9 children in Africa still do not live to see their fifth birthday. Breastfeeding is not only crucial for tackling malnutrition and saving children's lives, it also has the potential to have tangible impacts on the economic and social development of countries across Africa. Malnutrition can undermine future earning potential by as much as 20% and can inhibit growth of GDP by as much as 2-3%. Today's malnutrition will knock $125bn off the global economy by 2030, when these children reach working age.
But breastfeeding is undervalued. Global rates of breastfeeding have remained below 40% for the past 20 years as breastfeeding has slipped down the list of political priorities. In some countries, particularly in East Asia and the Pacific, the number of breastfed children is starting to fall.
Many governments across East Africa have shown their determination to increase breastfeeding rates. Countries like Rwanda where 85% of children are exclusively breastfed for the first six months have shown success is possible, however other countries in the region have further to go, for example in Kenya only 32% of children are exclusively breastfed for the first six months meaning that too many children are missing out on vital nutrients they need in the first months of life. As UNICEF's recent State of the World's Children report shows breastfeeding rates across the region vary - with exclusive breastfeeding rates at 69% in Burundi, 62% in Uganda, 52% in Ethiopia and Tanzania with 50%.
So what needs to happen? We need to ensure that women have the support they need to breastfeed and overcome the main barriers preventing them from doing so. Those barriers include community and cultural practices which discourage women from breastfeeding, severe shortages of midwives and health workers meaning that too often the opportunity for new mothers to be supported to breastfeed in the first few hours is lost, lack of adequate maternity legislation and marketing practices by some breast milk substitute companies leading to infant formula being used unnecessarily and improperly, ultimately putting children at risk.
Tackling these barriers demands a new and concerted effort from many different groups of people; governments, local communities and business. For example, governments and local communities need to take action to empower women to make their own decisions about breastfeeding, governments need to invest in strengthening health systems to protect, promote and support breastfeeding and introduce nationwide breastfeeding-friendly policies and legislation. Finally, businesses need to act responsibly in their marketing on Breast Milk Substitutes and governments need to ensure that national regulation of Breast Milk Substitutes is strengthened and enforced. This issue is increasingly important in emerging economies, where some companies are aggressively marketing their products, despite the threat that this undermines support for breastfeeding.
There has been some good progress and this year increased political attention has been given to the importance of breastfeeding. At the Nutrition for Growth Summit held in London earlier this year many governments, businesses and other organisations made a commitment to save at least 1.7 million lives by reducing stunting, by increasing breastfeeding, and through the treatment of severe acute malnutrition. Governments like Indonesia, Sierra Leone and Tanzania affirmed their commitment to increasing breastfeeding rates and over 20 businesses committed to putting good nutrition at the core of business practice through improving policies for maternal health including support for breastfeeding mothers. Those are important steps forward but we need to make sure these and other promises are kept and build on existing efforts globally to ensure that as many children as possible receive this silver bullet in the fight against malnutrition and child mortality.
African leaders have the opportunity to show their commitment to doing so this week when they meet in South Africa at an African Union meeting focussing on maternal, child and newborn health. Breastfeeding and the actions needed to increase it must be an important part of their discussions. With enough will and commitment we have the opportunity to ensure that every child has the best chance to fulfil their potential.
In the last two decades there has been huge global progress in reducing child mortality with five million fewer children dying in 2011 than in 1990. The world is nearing a tipping point, the time at which the eradication of preventable child deaths becomes a real possibility. But there is still a lot to do to reach that point - breastfeeding is key to unlocking further progress and saving hundreds and thousands of children's lives.
Halane Hussein is Save the Children East Africa Regional Director