July 9, 2018

US deployed threats to block breastfeeding resolution, shocking global health officials

Daily Briefing

    The United States during a United Nations-affiliated World Health Assembly meeting this spring sought to block a resolution to promote breastfeeding that was expected to pass readily, according to delegates from several countries who spoke with the New York Times.

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    US threatens to withhold aid

    At the meeting in Geneva this May, Ecuador delegates sought to put forth a measure stating that a mother's milk is the healthiest for newborn babies and that countries should seek to curb inaccurate or misleading advertising of breastmilk substitutes. According to the Times, the position is based on decades of research.

    However, U.S. delegates  sought to remove language that directed governments to "protect, promote, and support breastfeeding" and a passage that urges policymakers to curb promotion of food products that many experts have said can be harmful to young children, according to the Times.

    The United States' proposed changes were rejected, the Times reports. Diplomats and government officials who took part in the discussions told the Times that the United States then threatened to take "punishing trade measures" and remove key military aid from Ecuador. Ecuador dropped its plan to introduce the resolution.

    Health advocates looked for another sponsor, but several countries—mainly low-income countries in Latin America and Africa—declined out of concern of retaliation, according to officials from Uruguay, Mexico, and the United States.

    Ultimately, Russia introduced the measure and it passed. "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," a Russian delegate said.

    Comments

    According to the Times, health officials and foreign diplomats were surprised by the intensity of the United States' opposition, noting that it marked a change from the previous administrations stance on the World Health Organization's policy to encourage breastfeeding. 

    Patti Rundall, the policy director of the British advocacy group Baby Milk Action, said, "We were astonished, appalled and also saddened." She called the United States' actions "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."

    According to the Times, the United States sought to alter the resolution's language in favor of infant formula manufacturers. However, health advocates said they saw no direct evidence that baby food lobbyists influenced the United States' tactics.

    An HHS spokesperson who requested anonymity, said the United States opposed it because it "placed unnecessary hurdles for mothers seeking to provide nutrition to their children." The spokesperson added, "We recognize not all women are able to breastfeed 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."

    The U.S. State Department declined a request to comment, saying it could not discuss private diplomatic conversations (Jacobs, New York Times, 7/8; Haller, USA Today, 7/8).

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