Africa: The Uwavering Benefits of Breastfeeding - in the Age of Covid-19

Breastfeeding baby.

The unprecedented global social and economic crisis triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic poses grave risks to the nutritional status and survival of young children in low-income and middle-income countries Of particular concern is an expected increase in child malnutrition, including infant and young child feeding nutrition, due to steep declines in household incomes, changes in the availability and affordability of nutritious foods, and interruptions to health, nutrition, and social protection services.

As we commemorate World Breastfeeding Week this year, one thing we know for sure are the benefits of breastfeeding children. Evidence shows us that optimal breastfeeding is vital to the lifelong good health and wellbeing of women and children. Globally, scaling up breastfeeding could prevent 2,000 maternal deaths, 823,000 child deaths, and US$302 billion in economic losses every year.

The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends early initiation of breastfeeding within the first hour of birth, feeding the child only breast milk for the first 6 months (exclusive breastfeeding), and continuing to breastfeed for up to 24 months or beyond, with introduction of nutritionally adequate and safe complementary (solid) foods at 6 months. Even in the context of COVID-19, WHO recommends that mothers with suspected or confirmed COVID-19 should continue to practice infant breastfeeding. The benefits of breast-feeding substantially outweigh the potential risks of COVID-19 transmission while practicing the regular hygiene and prevention practices.

Despite general acceptance and high incidence of breastfeeding in Zimbabwean society, the country is still struggling to improve breastfeeding indicators. There is still a lot of work to be done in creating an enabling environment to help communities ensure they feed infants and young children to promote the best nutrition, health and environmental outcomes. The 2019 MICS report shows that in Zimbabwe less than two thirds of children are breastfed within the first one hour after birth and less than half of the children 0 to 6 months of age being exclusively breastfed. There has been also a rise in bottle feeding which does not only increase the health risk to the infants but also contribute more to environmental degradation.

Aggressive marketing by multinational baby formula and baby food companies is among the factors that undermines breastfeeding and is associated with decreases in breastfeeding rates. Breast-milk substitutes are marketed directly to consumers via mass media and print advertisements and indirectly via incentives, free supplies, and promotions to and through health workers and facilities, retailers, and policy makers. The society need to remain vigilant during the current Covid 19 pandemic by not accepting free donations of breastmilk substitutes from anyone. Rises in marketing of breastmilk substitutes influences social norms and contributes to the wrong perceptions that formula use can be comparable to or better than breast milk. Zimbabwe currently has an outdated legislation (Statutory instrument 48 of 1996) which requires an urgent review and enforcement. Adoption of stricter regulatory frameworks coupled with independent, quantitative monitoring and compliance enforcement are needed to counter the impacts of breastmilk substitutes marketing.

The focus of this year's commemoration is to inform our society about the benefits breastfeeding has on the environment. It is important to protect, promote and support breastfeeding in our nation for a healthier planet and healthier people. As we recognize that breast milk is made by the human body and it will always be available for a baby breastfeeding reduces the impact of environmental costs and impact from packaging waste and pollution caused by formula packaging and processing. In addition, lack of access to breastmilk substitutes in challenging times such as during a pandemic or disaster can be detrimental to the health of children and mothers.

During this very challenging time, let's all work together to promote breastfeeding across our communities. Breastfeeding is one of the natural and wonderful gifts we can give our children and is a public health intervention that prevents infections and illnesses and saves lives.

Permanent Secretary Country Representative Country Representative

MoHCC World Health Organization UNICEF

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