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Let's Raise Children on Breast Milk

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The Annual Meeting of the Japanese Society for Breastfeeding Research was held at the Japanese Red Cross College of Nursing in Tokyo on October 8 and 9, 2011. The Society has a special meaning for me because I established it twenty-five years ago and passed on the leadership to the next generation some five years ago. Dr. Mitsuhiro Sugimoto, obstetrician, the deputy director of the Japanese Red Cross Medical Center presided over the meeting. Topics for discussion included mother-to-child infection and the transfer of chemicals into breast milk from environmental pollution or medication from the breast-feeding mother. Physicians from South Korean Society for Breastfeeding Research also reported on issues they are currently facing.

In Japan as well, the number of women who breastfeed has declined, and this is a cause of concern for those who recognize the importance of breastfeeding, in particular, members of the Society. The decline can no doubt be attributed to our current affluent and materialistic society. It is possible to see baby formula manufacturers taking advantage of this in their sales strategies and advertising, including campaigns to give away powdered milk to expectant mothers in the hospital. Shrewd companies target the physicians and mother. There are even some cases in which baby formula companies will provide obstetricians with financial support in setting up a clinic.

Relations with baby formula manufacturers had also been a frequent topic of discussion during the twelve years that I served as officer of International Pediatric Association (IPA) from the end of the 1970s to the end of the 1980s. At that time, leading baby formula manufacturers had set up coffee break zones in the IPA conference venue where participants could enjoy coffee, tea, cookies and other refreshments. They aggressively courted association officials by inviting them to special dinners and in other ways. It was Dr. Ihsan Dogramaci, a Turkish pediatrician and IPA executive director when I was a director, who cut ties with these manufacturers. With the rise in economic conditions and standard of living in developing countries, baby formula manufacturers began sales campaigns that included putting up billboards on highways in Africa to increase sales by encouraging baby formula over breast milk. They seemed to say that baby formula would help babies grow big and strong like the white men in advertising campaign, and this appealed to some mothers. Nevertheless, in an environment without a sewage system and electricity, that is, with unsanitary water and no refrigeration, the bottles became contaminated with bacteria and infants actually died from diarrhea and related causes.

The WHO eventually announced the WHO Code or International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes, and I believe it was in the 1980s that baby formula advertising was regulated. I also attribute this to the efforts of Dr. Dogramaci, who contributed greatly to the WHO and was the one of the signatories of the WHO constitution after WWII.

Today, however, because of the affluence of Japan and other countries, the WHO Code brings up the issue of corporate ethics, something quite different from problems of sewage and refrigeration. This was the subject of a discussion lasting nearly two hours before start of the recent conference. It was a meaningful discussion, too. I hope that more mothers will choose to raise their infants on breast milk.

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