How looting threatens breastfeeding gains in KwaZulu-Natal

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'Breastfeeding contributes to the survival, health and wellbeing of all'
'Breastfeeding contributes to the survival, health and wellbeing of all'

Recent events of looting and violence, and the impact it had on healthcare services for mothers and their newborns, have again highlighted the important role that breastfeeding plays in securing food for the child as well as promoting good outcomes for children

World Breastfeeding Week 2021 runs from 1-7 August 2021, and this year puts the focus on how breastfeeding contributes to the survival, health and wellbeing of all, and the imperative to protect breastfeeding worldwide.  

The theme is aligned with thematic area 2 of the UN's 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which highlights the links between breastfeeding and survival, health and wellbeing of women, children and nations. 

The chaos that we saw during the violence in Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal echoed the kind of disruptions we also observed during the first days of lockdown. It brought into focus the fragile food system and growing concerns around food security for most people. 

As far as babies and breastfeeding mothers are concerned, the same kind of disruptions played itself out when it comes to access to food when they were left with no real access to formula milk.  It was further exacerbated by some dangerous recipes for homemade formula milk. 

Read: 'Now is not the time to lower our ambitions': UNICEF and WHO release joint statement about World Breastfeeding Week

Urgent calls for infant formula 

A call was put out to the South African Breastmilk Reserve to mobilise support for the human milk banks affected by the recent riots and to engage in health literacy that promotes breastfeeding to achieve food security for babies. While food deliveries to KZN province resumed after 7 days, many mothers had to leave the safety of their homes to drive long distances to find formula milk.  

An emergency stakeholder group was formed to raise donations of breastmilk for affected areas. This emergency stakeholder group ignited a strong network of lactation consultants, human milk bankers, healthcare professionals and policymakers to coordinate and cooperate in promoting breastfeeding and advocacy for breastfeeding as the public health strategy to protect children in extreme situations when food insecurity is compromised.  

The emergency stakeholder group was instrumental in activating a breastmilk drive that resulted in the collection of 100 units of breastmilk in support of iThembaLethu breastmilk bank and through the group transport and volunteers rallied to get the breast milk from Johannesburg to the facility in Durban.  

Fortunately, the transport routes to KZN were re-opened and the SABR courier services were able to collect and dispatch an extra 500 units of breastmilk in support of a variety of human milk banks nationally. 

This new collaboration among health advocates for breastfeeding has heightened our awareness and appreciation of the invaluable role of breastfeeding, especially in a time of crisis. At the same time, the urgent calls for infant formula has laid bare just how fragile the infant feeding landscape remains to this day.  

The large volumes of formula looted from the shops together with the influx of infant formula donations into KZN, threaten the breastfeeding gains that the province has made since the withdrawal of free milk formula through the programme for the prevention of mother to child transmission of HIV in 2011.  

'Breastfeeding is an everyday practice'

As breastfeeding advocates, we recognize the gaps in scaling up efforts for the protection, promotion, and support for breastfeeding. Without a strong culture of breastfeeding, raising donations for human milk banking becomes very difficult. 

Now more than ever, the KZN situation has highlighted the urgent need to expand and intensify efforts to pursue all avenues to support breastfeeding mothers throughout the health system, in their workplaces and in their social settings.  

We realise that education and support of new mothers as well as the upskilling of healthcare professionals to promote and support breastfeeding is imperative as an ongoing activity because breastfeeding is an everyday practice requiring skilled support. Our role as breastfeeding advocates and health educators is key to maintaining mother and baby-friendly values both in the health system and at the community level. 

Given the unprecedented situation in KZN and the aggressive drive for infant formula donations, a communication strategy in support of breastfeeding and the awareness of the country's legislation to control the marketing and promotion of milk formula was launched by the National Department of Health, and the South African Civil Society for Women's, Adolescents' and Children's Health.  

Also read: 'Breastfeeding is best': Why protecting breastfeeding is a 'shared responsibility'

'Secure and sustained food source': a shared responsibility

A media blitz was initiated to raise awareness of the importance of breastfeeding to encourage mothers to seek help early to overcome breastfeeding challenges and difficulties. This was done with the support of the South African Certified Lactation Consultants (SACLC). 

South Africa has committed to protect, promote, and support breastfeeding such as through a variety of cross-sectoral interventions, under the guidance of the Department of Health.  

Pregnant and breastfeeding women are legally protected in the workplace, furthermore, the marketing and promotion of infant formula are regulated in such a way as to prevent the erosion of breastfeeding values.  

The United Nation's nutrition targets for 2025 calls on signatory countries to reach a country level of at least 50% exclusive breastfeeding for all infants less than 6 months. At the current rate of progress, South Africa will not reach that target of 50% exclusive breastfeeding by 2025.  

As poverty and food insecurity deepen, it is imperative that we protect, promote and support breastfeeding to ensure that infants and children have a secured and sustained food source at the mother's breast.  

What we have learned from recent events in KZN is that formula-dependent mothers experienced additional trauma in what is an ongoing Covid19 pandemic by not having formula milk.  

In the spirit of the theme of World Breastfeeding Week 2021 – 'Protect Breastfeeding: A Shared Responsibility' – and to safeguard our mothers and babies, we must commit every effort to protect breastfeeding as a shared responsibility.

Submitted to Parent24 by the South African Breastfeeding Reserve.

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