While the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic may have outlawed us from physically touching each other, there’s one physical connection that remains and is to be encouraged – breast-feeding.
Health Minister Dr Zweli Mkhize emphasised this morning that Covid-19 had not been found (by scientists) in breast milk, meaning that the deadly virus was not transmitted through it – or by giving expressed breast milk from a mother confirmed to have Covid-19.
Mkhize was speaking at the virtual launch of World Breastfeeding Week this morning, under the theme “Support breastfeeding for a healthier planet”, and said it was a fundamental aspect of preventive healthcare. The week started on Saturday and runs until Friday.
“Under the current circumstances we are mindful that families, mothers, caregivers and even some healthcare workers, in particular, are worried and asking many questions about whether the coronavirus can be passed on through breast milk and how can they protect themselves and their babies.
“I can assure you that the Covid-19 virus has not been found in breast milk and research evidence has shown that it is not transmitted through breast milk,” the minister said.
Mkhize continued: “Academic experts in SA have established a pregnancy register to evaluate potential harm to pregnant women and/or their babies, caused by Covid-19 infection.
“Excellent progress has been made in studying mothers and babies who have been affected by Covid-19, and the issue of breast-feeding in the context of it came into sharp focus.
“Based on these studies, mothers who have suspected or confirmed Covid-19 are encouraged to continue breast-feeding and practise good respiratory hygiene.”
While the evidence on the benefits of breast-feeding is well documented, in South Africa only 32% of mothers exclusively breast-feed their children for six months, as per the World Health Organisation guideline. And more so, the country is still lagging behind on the organisation’s target to get member states to have 50% of their mothers exclusively breast-feeding by 2025.
Mkhize said that, because babies’ immune systems were not yet fully developed, they required the immune protection gained from breast milk.
“This life-saving protection is more important than ever right now during the Covid-19 pandemic,” the minister emphasised. “Breast-feeding can protect children from many other illnesses and conditions, such as diarrhoea, chest infections, diabetes and heart disease. Nearly half of diarrhoea episodes and one-third of respiratory infections are due to lack of breast-feeding.
“Breast-feeding also offers children long-lasting protection against conditions such as diabetes, cancer, asthma and malnutrition. And there are benefits for moms too… Breast-feeding is nature’s way of protecting the physical and mental wellbeing of mothers and babies in the first critical years of life.”
Explaining why it was important to create a conducive environment for breast-feeding to thrive among women, Muriel Mafico, deputy representative of Unicef in South Africa, said:
“Breast-feeding is not a lonesome journey – it requires mothers to have a good support structure from healthcare workers who listen to their experiences, respond to their needs and reassure them by giving skilled advice. But too many mothers, especially young mothers, simply do not have that critical support system.”
She added: “Breast-feeding provides every child with the best possible start in life and, I dare to say, it’s one of the most cost-effective health interventions we have at our disposal. It delivers health, and emotional and nutritional benefits to both children and mothers ... protects babies from many diseases and different forms of child malnutrition, and is essential for brain development and sets a very healthy foundation.”
Mafico said countries such as South Africa needed to sustain access to skilled breast-feeding counselling services and continue creating enabling environments in public places and workplaces for mothers to be able to safely breast-feed their children – even during this pandemic.
“Breast-feeding mothers who work outside of home need support from their employers, as well as within their families and communities, and partnerships are key. Indeed, it takes a village to raise a child; mothers need our support to sustain breast-feeding.”