About 160,000 infants die each year in the Asia-Pacific region due to a decline in breastfeeding, a UNICEF expert told a regional conference on Wednesday.
There are "roughly 160,000 children dying annually in Eastern and Southeastern Asia whose deaths are attributed to something as preventable and as imminently correctable as sub-optimal breastfeeding," said UN children's agency (UNICEF) regional advisor Stephen Atwood.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) warned that babies less than five months old who were not exclusively breastfed were at much higher risk of diarrhea and pneumonia, which often prove deadly in developing countries. The joint WHO and UNICEF conference to promote breastfeeding said just 35 percent of babies in the region were exclusively breastfed in the first four months of their lives. In a joint statement they said this was "an alarming threat to child survival," and called on countries in the region to invest more in promoting breastfeeding and to warn people of "the dangers of breast milk substitutes."
WHO regional director Shigeru Omi warned that "breastfeeding rates declined in most developing countries in East Asia and the Pacific where just over one-third of mothers exclusively breastfeed their babies for up to six months."
He cited host country the Philippines as an example, where the rate of exclusive breastfeeding in the first five months fell from 20 percent in 1998 to 16 percent in 2003. The rate of exclusive breastfeeding of babies six months old varied widely in the region with Thailand at 5.4 percent and North Korea at 65.1 percent, the WHO said in a statement.
The WHO said an increase in breastfeeding in Cambodia had contributed to a sharp fall in child mortality. In 2000, just 11 percent of Cambodian mothers breastfed their babies for the first six months. By 2005, 60 percent were breastfeeding which the WHO said contributed to a steep fall in child mortality rates over the same period.
Omi said governments should address the problem by ensuring their health systems promoted breastfeeding. He also called for legislation to ban "the inappropriate promotion of breast milk substitutes," especially those which say these products can increase the health and intelligence of children.
In the region, he noted only the Philippines and Palau had laws explicitly barring the promotion of infant formula as breast milk substitutes for babies below the age of one.