Every year the lives of several millions of babies could be saved by the easiest and most natural remedy of them all - breast-feeding.
A research project conducted by field workers in remote Ghanaian villages has revealed that breast feeding babies with in an hour of being born could almost guarantee the life of the baby. A delay of even one day from the mother's breast could more than double the child risks of dying within a month. In addition early introduction to animal milk or any other substitute for mother's milk pushed the child's chance of living for a month down to barely one in 10.
It has been estimated that in the developing world, four million babies die every year before they have reached the age of one month. This research, funded by the British Government, has shown that nearly a quarter of these babies could be saved if they were breastfed from the first hour of life.
Researchers studied the history of around 11,000 babies born within the same period of 12 months in 2003-04 in Brong Ahafo, the forest savannah region of central Ghana. Of these nearly 8,000 were breast-fed from the first day, and all but 70 lived through their first month. Those breast fed within the first hour were found to have a less than one in 150 risk of dying. But of the other 3,000, who started breastfeeding later or not at all, 74 - nearly one in 40 - died before they were a month old.
New born babies fed on other fluids or solids had a particularly high death rate, about four times higher death rate in the first month as babies who drank nothing but breast milk. Colostrum, the first milk produced after childbirth, is rich in a variety of components that help the gut to grow and build resistance to infection.
Substitutes, like animal milk, can disrupt the normal function of the gut. Often in remote villages, home-made feed, made with unclean water, comprised of cereals, animal milk and herbal concoctions or other liquids low in nutrients, are often given as substitutes which can damage the digestion and expose the baby to disease. Another advantage of breast feeding is the warmth that is offered to the child, thereby reducing the risk of hypothermia.
The results of the survey are seen as particularly significant for Africa, where infant mortality rates are high and no cultural bars exists towards early breastfeeding - unlike parts of India and Bangladesh, where many people believe that colostrum should not be used.
However = the major bar to breast-feeding in Africa has turned out to be HIV. While in Ghana, only about 4 per cent of the population has HIV, South Africa is thought to have 5.5 million sufferers out of a population of 47 million. The World Health Organization has urged mothers who know they have HIV to use artificial milk.
Hilary Benn, the International Development Secretary, said: "This groundbreaking research could help save one million children's lives every year. What's so exciting about it is that the solution doesn't need costly medicines. We just need to get across the simple message to women that, unless they have HIV, breast-feeding from the time they give birth is not only best - it will increase the chances of their baby surviving."
He added: "We need to support ministries of health, Unicef, the World Health Organisation and others to tackle the underlying reasons why, in some cultures, breast-feeding in the first few days is discouraged."