Commentary

Report Says U.S. Tried To Water Down WHA's Breast-Feeding Resolution

With the financial interests of infant-formula manufacturers as its purported motivation, the U.S. delegation at a meeting of the U.N.-affiliated World Health Assembly (WHA) in Geneva in May tried to weaken a widely supported resolution calling for governments to support breast-feeding, the New York Times’ Andrew Jacobs reports.

“Based on decades of research, the resolution says that mother’s milk is healthiest for children and countries should strive to limit the inaccurate or misleading marketing of breast milk substitutes,” Jacobs writes. “… American officials sought to water down the resolution by removing language that called on governments to ‘protect, promote and support breast-feeding’ and another passage that called on policymakers to restrict the promotion of food products that many experts say can have deleterious effects on young children.”

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According to several sources who took part the discussions, the U.S. threatened Ecuador, which was planning to introduce the resolution, by saying it would “unleash punishing trade measures and withdraw crucial military aid.”

Then the Russians stepped in and introduced the measure in Ecuador’s stead.

“A Russian diplomat told the Times that his country’s decision to advance the breastfeeding resolution was an easy one to make,” writes Ariel Zilber for the Daily Mail.

“We’re not trying to be a hero here, but we feel that it is wrong when a big country tries to push around some very small countries, especially on an issue that is really important for the rest of the world,” the diplomat said.

“The final resolution largely reflected the original wording. But the U.S. insisted on removing language calling on the World Health Organization [WHO] to offer technical support to officials trying to stop ‘inappropriate promotion of foods for infants and young children,’ according to the Times,” writes Sonja Haller for USA Today.

Sputnik, the Russian news agency, was quick to exploit the propaganda opportunity presented by the revelation.

“A Russian delegation stepped in to right a wrong perpetrated by the Trump administration, as U.N. and WHO officials offered no resistance to U.S. demands supporting big business at the expense of infant health,” reads its lede. 

“In a stunning confrontation noted to be another example of support by the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump for corporate interests on environmental and public health issues, U.S. officials demanded that U.N. health branch WHA — the governing body for the World Health Organization (WHO) — shelve a resolution … ,” it goes on, largely re-reporting the Times piece, as do all follow-up stories.

“Lucy Sullivan, executive director of 1,000 Days, the U.S.-headquartered international group working to improve nutrition for babies and infants, said in a Twitter thread that the U.S. intervention amounted to ‘public health versus private profit. 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,’” Ed Pilkington reports for The Guardian.

“The online network of mothers, Moms Rising, called the U.S. government’s move ‘stunning and shameful. We must do everything we can to advocate for public policies that support and empower breastfeeding moms,’” he continues.

A 2016 study published in The Lancet and cited by the NYT’s Jacobs found that “the deaths of 823,000 children and 20,000 mothers each year could be averted through universal breastfeeding, along with economic savings of $300 billion.” 

“The milk formula industry has been struggling against stagnating sales in recent years, but is still worth $70 billion annually. The small number of giants that produce it are concentrated in the U.S. and Europe. One of those giants, Abbott Nutrition, is part of the healthcare multinational Abbott Laboratories that contributed to Trump’s inauguration ceremonies in January 2017,” Pilkington continues. 

Abbott contributed $35,000, according to Kaiser Health News — less than several other companies including Pfizer, which gave $1 million, and Amgen, which forked over $500,000.

“In a statement to the Times, the Department of Health and Human Services, the agency that led the push to water down the resolution, argued that the original text would have ‘placed unnecessary hurdles for mothers seeking to provide nutrition to their children,’” Max Greenwood writes for The Hill.

“We recognize not all women are able to breast-feed for a variety of reasons. These women should have the choice and access to alternatives for the health of their babies, and not be stigmatized for the ways in which they are able to do so,” a spokesman said.

“What happened was tantamount to blackmail, with the U.S. holding the world hostage and trying to overturn nearly 40 years of consensus on the best way to protect infant and young child health,” Patti Rundall, the policy director of the British advocacy group Baby Milk Action, tells Jacobs.

“WE SHOULD BE SCREAMING ABOUT THIS,” screamtweets actress/activist Alyssa Milano.

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