US President Donald Trump’s administration has caused outrage after reports emerged that it bullied other governments in an attempt to prevent the passage of an international resolution promoting breastfeeding.
The US delegation to the World Health Assembly in Geneva reportedly deployed heavy-handed measures to browbeat nations into backing off the resolution.
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Under the original text from the World Health Organisation, countries would have encouraged their citizens to breastfeed on grounds that research overwhelmingly shows its health benefits, while warning parents to be alert to inaccurate marketing by formula milk firms.
The New York Times first reported how the Trump administration reacted forcefully to the resolution, which otherwise had the consensus support of all other assembly members.
The administration pushed to remove a phrase from the draft text that would exhort governments to “protect, promote and support breast-feeding”.
The administration also had diplomats lean on member states. It told Ecuador, for example, that unless the South American nation withdrew its backing of the resolution it would face punitive trade moves and the potential loss of military help in its battle against gang violence.
During the deliberations over the resolution, according to The New York Times, the US delegation made threatening suggestions that Washington would cut its funding for WHO.
As the single largest donor to the world body, awarding US$845 million last year, that threat would not have been taken lightly.
The resolution was eventually passed with US support, but only after the Russian government reintroduced it using a modified text.
Lucy Sullivan, executive director of 1,000 Days, an international group working to improve nutrition for babies and infants, said on Twitter that the US intervention amounted to “public health versus private profit”
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“What is at stake: breastfeeding saves women and children’s lives. It is also bad for the multibillion-dollar global infant formula [and dairy] business.” she wrote.
The online network of mothers, Moms Rising, called the US move “stunning and shameful. We must do everything we can to advocate for public policies that support and empower breastfeeding moms.”
Patti Rundall of the UK-based campaign Baby Milk Action told The New York Times: “We were astonished, appalled and also saddened.
“What happened was tantamount to blackmail, with the US holding the world hostage and trying to overturn nearly 40 years of consensus on best way to protect infant and young child health.”
Under an internal code of the WHO, baby formula companies are banned from explicitly targeting mothers and their health carers. Advertising is also controlled.
A Guardian investigation with Save the Children earlier this year found that formula milk firms were using aggressive methods to skirt the regulations to press mothers and healthcare professionals to choose powdered milk over breastfeeding.
The measures were intensively deployed in the poorest regions of the world, where most growth in the baby milk formula business is now concentrated.
In a post on Facebook, Democratic Senator Bernie Sanders wrote: “This is what oligarchy is about. This is what uncontrolled greed is about. This is what a corrupt political system is about.
The Trump administration’s slavish devotion to corporate profits, and their contempt for the health and well-being of Americans and people throughout the world is beyond appalling.”
A plethora of studies have shown the pronounced health improvements brought about by breastfeeding in the US and around the world.
A Harvard study in 2016 estimated that 3,340 premature deaths a year among both mothers and babies could be prevented in the US alone given adequate breastfeeding.
The milk formula industry has been struggling against stagnating sales in recent years, but is still worth US$70 billion annually.
The small number of giants that produce it are concentrated in the US and Europe.
One of those giants, Abbott Nutrition, is part of the healthcare multinational Abbott Laboratories that contributed to Trump’s inauguration ceremonies in 2017.