PESHAWAR: Aliya Bilal, mother to an only child, was continuously stressed over the health of her newborn baby, who remained weak since birth. Shortly after birth, doctors at a private hospital in Peshawar recommended formula milk for her son. Initially, she was happy since her child’s health seemed to improve, but soon after he was afflicted with many infections. Her ordeal only ended when another doctor suggested breastfeeding her child to restore him to health. The results were positive.
The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Protection of Breast-feeding and Child Nutrition Act was passed by the provincial assembly on January 9, 2015 but due to failure in its proper implementation, formula milk continues to sell freely in pharmacies and general stores across the province.
Dr. Pervaiz Kamal, director general Health, argues: “The health department will take steps on priority basis regarding the implementation of the breastfeeding act now that power rests with the provinces under the 18th constitutional amendment. Implementation of the law will ban the open sale of formula milk in our province.” He warned that any doctors prescribing formula milk would be punished under the new law.
He told this scribe that the health department, along with donor agencies, plans to launch a breastfeeding awareness campaign this August to spread across the length and breadth of the province. He claimed that the health department had put all efforts into educating the masses regarding the importance of breast feeding, however, responsibility also falls on the media and respected religious leaders to help spread the word.
It is pertinent to note here that both local and foreign brands of formula milk are being sold in the market in excess of more than Rs.300 of their actual sale prices. An average of Rs.4, 000-8,000 is spent on a monthly basis on formula milk for a single child.
Kamran Khan, a formula milk seller in Peshawar, told this scribe that he is unaware of the new law and continues to sell his product due to its overwhelming demand.
The general impression is that doctors often recommend it to parents to make some extra money. A formula milk seller, who wished to remain anonymous for obvious reasons, divulged that “doctors suggest formula milk to parents because the companies pay 15 to 30 per cent commission to them for their recommendation. Prior to implementing the law, such companies and doctors should be warned against promoting formula milk.”
According to the National Nutrition Survey report of 2011, in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa 68.5 per cent children under the age of five often suffer from Vitamin-A deficiency, whereas nationwide the figure is 54 per cent. Also, 49 per cent suffer from anaemia in the province, while the ratio is 62 per cent at the country level. The province has 24.1 per cent underweight children, while the national average is 31 per cent.
According to Dr. Dur-e-Shehwar, gynaecologist and child health nutritionist, “Breast milk should be considered as a baby’s first vaccine, the first and best protection they have against all kinds of illnesses and diseases.” She added that “breastfeeding babies can reduce risk of developing chronic conditions such as diabetes, celiac disease and Crohn’s disease”. She also elaborated the benefits of breast milk over formula milk and added that breastfeeding can be 99 per cent effective, is readily available and always at the right temperature.”
An extensive study by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences showed that children who are breastfed have a 20 per cent lower risk of dying between the ages of 28 days and 1 year than children who aren’t breastfed.
Dr. Haroon Khan, deputy director, integrated nutrition programme Khyber Pukhtoonkhwa, said that the first week of August 2016 was observed by 170 countries across the globe as breastfeeding week to highlight the importance of breastfeeding. He added that our religion Islam advises us to breastfeed a child up to two years of age, adding that six month of exclusive breastfeeding is necessary for a child.
He informed that in Pakistan the breastfeeding ratio is approximately 38 per cent, while in developed countries the ratio of breastfeeding is more than 50 per cent. If we want to achieve our sustainable development goals (SDGs), we must improve the ratio of breastfeeding twofold, he added.
Due to lack of information, most parents like Aliya Bilal opt for formula milk simply because the doctor recommends doing so. According to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), more than 800,000 lives could be saved if all babies are breastfed from birth till six months of age by their mothers.