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Milk woes

Published: 
Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Man has been around for some one million years. You know how long that is? During that period, infant feeding evolved into a complex, dynamic process, a dance of life between the mother, her breasts and the infant, with chemical messages passing back and forth according to the needs of the child and the mother.

Cows have been kept for about 10,000 years or 0.1 per cent of human life. Cows’ milk has been in general use since the 1940’s, seventy years or so, or 7/100,00 of the human lifeline. Babies do not know this. They try to feed the way they evolved: hungrily, every hour on the hour.

World War 2 happened in the forties, men left offices and factories to fight and women left their homes to replace them. Problem, how were babies to be fed? This time, unlike other periods, there appeared to be a food capable of replacing human milk. Cows’ milk came into widespread use. One of the first, KLIM, is milk spelt backwards, one of the many successful psychological labelling and advertising decisions that came to haunt and dismay the proponents of breastfeeding, in those days, unlike now, mainly grandmothers and aunties.

The heyday of bottle feeding cows milk, slightly modified or not, or as it was named in another brilliant move, “formula” (suggestion of “modern” and “scientific”), lasted 30 years and a generation of women grew up feeding “formula”, really breastfeeding substitutes, to their babies under the mistaken impression that it was, if not better than their milk, then at least as good. The “lost” generation of mothers, now grandmothers.

By this time it was clear that something bad was happening with “formula”. Experience was showing that feeding babies modified cows’ milk or “formula” resulted in more illness than was expected. In those days the focus was on diarrhoea, the scourge of developing countries, resulting in the 70’s in the deaths of five million babies annually. Here In T&T, an average of three babies a day died on the wards of the POSGH and SFGH, a thousand a year. None of these babies were breastfed and it is now known that formula fed babies are nine times as likely to die in developing countries from diarrhoeal disease as breastfed ones. Even in a developed country the risk of dying is more than doubled.

Perhaps more serious than this was the gathering evidence that formula companies were unethically advertising their products as superior to human milk in the poorer countries of Africa, the Far East and to a lesser extent in Central and South America and the Caribbean and that babies were dying as a result. A consortium of charitable organisations and NGOs began to collect information and in 1974 a British aid agency, War on Want, produced the results of its investigation into the promotion and sale of powdered milks in what was then called “The Third World”, titled “The Baby Killer”.

The first sentence of that investigation’s summary says, “Third World babies are dying because their mothers bottle feed them with western style infant milk”. The fourth paragraph simply says, “The baby food industry stands accused of promoting their products in communities which cannot use them properly; of using advertising, sales girls dressed up as nurses, give away samples and free gift gimmicks that persuade mothers to give up breastfeeding”.

The evidence was persuasive, formula companies were encouraging mothers to stop breastfeeding and to buy their milks. In 1981, after seven years of debate, WHO passed the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes “to protect and encourage breastfeeding and to control appropriate marketing practices to sell products for formula feeding”.

One of the first countries to agree to the Code was T&T. Unfortunately that was that and breastfeeding substitutes continued to be openly advertised. Diarrhoea is no longer a problem. But feeding formula is associated with other diseases that cost the country over eight billion dollars a year.