WHO and UNICEF say governments need to tighten breast-milk substitute marketing code during coronavirus pandemic

By Jim Cornall

- Last updated on GMT

WHO and UNICEF are encouraging women to continue to breastfeed during the COVID-19 pandemic, even if they have confirmed or suspected COVID-19. Pic: Getty Images/Paffy69
WHO and UNICEF are encouraging women to continue to breastfeed during the COVID-19 pandemic, even if they have confirmed or suspected COVID-19. Pic: Getty Images/Paffy69

Related tags WHO Unicef Breast milk breast milk substitute Infant formula Infant formula products COVID-19 coronavirus

A new report by WHO, UNICEF, and the International Baby Food Action Network (IBFAN) says despite efforts to stop the promotion of breast-milk substitutes, countries are still falling short in protecting parents from misleading information.

The organizations said the coronavirus pandemic highlights the need for stronger legislation to protect families from potentially false claims or aggressive marketing practices.

The organizations say breast milk saves children’s lives as it provides antibodies that give babies a healthy boost and protect them against many childhood illnesses.

WHO and UNICEF said they are encouraging women to continue to breastfeed during the COVID-19 pandemic, even if they have confirmed or suspected COVID-19.

“The fear of COVID-19 transmission is eclipsing the importance of breastfeeding – and in too many countries mothers and babies are being separated at birth – making breastfeeding and skin to skin contact difficult if not impossible,”​ said Patti Rundall, of IBFAN’s global council.

“All on the basis of no evidence. Meanwhile the baby food industry is exploiting fears of infection, promoting and distributing free formula and misleading advice – claiming that the donations are humanitarian and that they are trustworthy partners.”

Of the 194 countries analyzed in the report, 136 have in place some form of legal measure related to the International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes and subsequent resolutions adopted by the World Health Assembly (the Code).

Attention to the Code is growing, as 44 countries have strengthened their regulations on marketing over the past two years.

However, the legal restrictions in most countries do not fully cover marketing that occurs in health facilities. Only 79 countries prohibit the promotion of breast-milk substitutes in health facilities, and only 51 have provisions that prohibit the distribution of free or low-cost supplies within the health care system.

Only 19 countries have prohibited the sponsorship of scientific and health professional association meetings by manufacturers of breast-milk substitutes, which include infant formula, follow-up formula, and growing up milks marketed for use by infants and children up to 36-months old.

“The aggressive marketing of breast-milk substitutes, especially through health professionals that parents trust for nutrition and health advice, is a major barrier to improving newborn and child health worldwide,”​ said Dr Francesco Branca, director of the WHO’s department of nutrition and food safety.

“Health care systems must act to boost parent’s confidence in breastfeeding without industry influence so that children don’t miss out on its lifesaving benefits.”

WHO and UNICEF recommend babies be fed nothing but breast milk for their first six months, after which they should continue breastfeeding – as well as eating other nutritious and safe foods – until two years of age or beyond.

The organizations said babies exclusively breastfed are 14 times less likely to die than babies who are not breastfed. However, today, only 41% of infants from birth to six months old are exclusively breastfed, a rate WHO Member States have committed to increasing to at least 50% by 2025. They stated that inappropriate marketing of breast-milk substitutes continues to undermine efforts to improve breastfeeding rates and the COVID-19 crisis is intensifying the threat.

Health care services aimed at supporting mothers to breastfeed, including counselling and skilled lactation support are strained as a result of the COVID-19 crisis. Infection prevention measures, such as physical distancing, make it difficult for community counselling and mother-to-mother support services to continue, which the organizations said leaves an opening for the breast-milk substitute industry to capitalize on the crisis, and diminish confidence in breastfeeding.

“As the COVID-19 pandemic progresses, health workers are being diverted to the response and health systems are overstretched. At such time, breastfeeding can protect the lives of millions of children, but new mothers cannot do it without the support of health providers,”​ said Dr Victor Aguayo, UNICEF’s chief of nutrition.

“We must, more than ever, step up efforts to ensure that every mother and family receive the guidance and support they need from a trained health care worker to breastfeed their children, right from birth, everywhere.”

The Code bans all forms of promotion of breast-milk substitutes, including advertising, gifts to health workers and distribution of free samples. Labels cannot make nutritional and health claims or include images that idealize infant formula. Instead, labels must carry messages about the superiority of breastfeeding over formula and the risks of not breastfeeding.

The WHO and UNICEF have called on governments to urgently strengthen legislation on the Code during the COVID-19 pandemic. Governments and civil society organizations should also not seek or accept donations of breast-milk substitutes in emergency situations, they said.

Breastfeeding and COVID-19

The organizations said that active COVID-19 virus has not, to date, been detected in the breastmilk of any mother with confirmed or suspected COVID-19. It appears unlikely, therefore, that COVID-19 would be transmitted through breastfeeding or by giving breastmilk that has been expressed by a mother who is confirmed or suspected to have COVID-19.

However, a report this week in the Lancet, Detection of SARS-CoV-2 in human breastmilk​, by researchers at the Institute of Molecular Virology, Ulm University Medical Center, in Germany, which studied two mothers with COVID-19, said that SARS-CoV-2 RNA was detected in milk from one of the mothers at days 10 (left and right breast), 12, and 13.

Detection of viral RNA in milk from the mother coincided with mild COVID-19 symptoms and a SARS-CoV-2 positive diagnostic test of the newborn.  The mother had been wearing a surgical mask since the onset of symptoms and followed safety precautions when handling or feeding the neonate, including proper hand and breast disinfection, strict washing, and sterilization of milk pumps and tubes.

However, the researchers said it was unclear whether the newborn was infected by breastfeeding or other modes of transmission.

They said further studies of milk samples from lactating women and possible virus transmission via breastfeeding are needed before any recommendations on whether mothers with COVID-19 should breastfeed.

But the WHO, UNICEF and IBFAN said women with confirmed or suspected COVID-19 can breastfeed if they wish to do so.

They said mothers should wash hands frequently with soap and water or use alcohol-based hand rub and especially before touching the baby; wear a medical mask during any contact with the baby, including while feeding; sneeze or cough into a tissue, then dispose of it immediately and wash hands again; and routinely clean and disinfect surfaces after touching them.

Even if mothers do not have a medical mask, they should follow all the other infection prevention measures listed, and continue breastfeeding, the organizations said.