A New York Times report recently revealed that at a United Nations-affiliated World Health Assembly, convened in May to pass a resolution encouraging mothers to breastfeed and limiting baby formula misinformation and inaccuracies, was blocked by the U.S. and almost did not pass. This followed after they threatened Ecuador (who introduced the resolution) and attempted to change the wording of the resolution to reflect corporate interests over maternal and infant health, in a move that reportedly shocked other governmental delegates and health officials.
The resolution was set to be introduced by Ecuador, at the assembly in Geneva, and was considered to be an easy and straightforward resolution to approve. However, the U.S. delegate group soon “upended the deliberations” by attempting to remove wording that called on governments to “protect, promote, and support breastfeeding” (particularly in developing countries) and policymakers to restrict the misleading promotion of unhealthy infant food products, which can be detrimental for newborns. However when this failed, U.S. delegates turned their attention to Ecuador and threatened harsh trade sanctions and military aid withdrawal, unless the country dropped the resolution. After Ecuador acquiesced, the U.S. also threatened other developing nations to stop them from introducing the resolution. After two further days of negotiation however, the resolution was introduced and passed with minimal changes, after Russia stepped in to sponsor the bill instead.
Some officials from the Assembly also said that the U.S. threatened to withdraw funding from the World Health Organization. The U.S. funded approximately 15% of WHO’s total $545 million budget last year. Many of the delegates and representatives of other nations spoke to the Times on condition of anonymity, fearing retaliation from the U.S.
The resolution was a result of decades of research that have shown the benefits to both infant and maternal health, when newborns are breastfed exclusively for at least six months. This is particularly important in developing countries, where clean water is in short supply and so contaminated water is often mixed with powdered formulas, increasing the risk of infection, disease, and malnutrition. While malnutrition can affect a woman’s ability to make enough breastmilk, it is still preferred for the naturally occuring antibodies and nutrients present in healthy breastmilk over formula. Even in developed nations, expensive formula can be watered down to make it last longer, resulting in malnutrition. Breastfeeding can also save money; a research report has found that if 90% of mothers in the U.S. breastfed exclusively for six months, they could collectively save $13 billion every year.
Developing nations are often the target of infant formula companies. A 2017 Guardian investigation, in partnership with NGO Save the Children, found that companies will use “aggressive, clandestine, and often illegal methods to target mothers in the poorest parts of the world to encourage them to choose powdered milk over breastfeeding.”
While the U.S. has attempted to downplay the issue – with President Trump tweeting about the “fake news” in the New York Times and claiming that the U.S. was standing against stigmatizing women who are unable to breastfeed – it is difficult to believe that an administration that cares so little for women’s reproductive, health, and societal rights, is suddenly prepared to advocate for them.
Likely the reasoning behind this decision came from business interests. The infant formula market is concentrated largely in Europe (15%) and North America (80%) and is worth around $70 billion, and much of this revenue comes from markets in developing nations, which are easier to peddle their products to. This is not the first time the U.S. has placed corporate interests and trade agreements above public health, with the Obama, Bush, and Clinton Administrations all attempting similar practices. However, this openly brazen display of bullying from the U.S. and their use of threats against smaller nations to further the interests of corporations, has only further reinforced their unwillingness to place public health first.
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