Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Political leadership: where to find it

Here is a Christmas message from the nation's leader: "You - who are involved in infant and young child feeding are securing our country’s future, for tomorrow belongs to today's child. And you cannot give the nation a better christmas gift than what you are giving now."

This was not from Gordon Brown, the UK Prime Minister, thanking everyone who has sent messages of support for implementing the World Health Assembly baby food marketing requirements in the UK. Alas, we have yet to see such leadership in the UK.

The message came from President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo of the Philippines.

She was speaking at a meeting of almost 300 Chiefs and Hospital Directors who had gathered to express their support to the Infant and Young Child Feeding Program of the Government.

In the UK, by contrast, health advocates from the government's own Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition, LACORS (the umbrella body for Trading Standards officers), Royal Colleges and members of the Baby Feeding Law Group have called on the UK government to improve the weak Infant Formula and Follow-on Formula Regulations. Yesterday Lynne Jones MP tabled Early Day Motion 608 calling for the government to re-think its approach to the regulations (more on that tomorrow). Glenys Kinnock MEP wrote to Gordon Brown months ago calling for him to show leadership. See:

While the UK government follows the industry line of minimal controls, the Department of Health in the Philippines fought the baby food industry in the Supreme Court, an action that gained world-wide support and galvanized backing from the highest levels of government.

Addressing the meeting on 17 December, President Arroyo said, in part:

---extract begins
The promotion of breastfeeding for children up to two years old, with emphasis on exclusive breastfeeding for the infant's first six months, is our fundamental approach to reduce if not eliminate hunger among infants and the very young children.

There is no substitute for mother’s milk, as most Filipinos know, but this knowledge has not been translated into practice. Our data indicate that more and more mothers are weaning their infants from breastmilk after only one month. A mere 16% of infants remain exclusively breastfed at 4-5 months, and very few are nourished by mothers’ milk up to 2 years old. We must act, and act fast to ensure that the nation builders of the future are provided proper nourishment.

One immediate concern which is why we’re having this is to involve all 1,426 accredited mother-baby friendly hospitals to fully implement the rooming in and breastfeeding act, the milk code and other laws on providing proper nourishment for infants. We need the strong will to make hospitals uphold our laws and work even harder to encourage other hospitals to join in our campaign.

The Supreme Court’s decision upholding all but three provisions of the milk code encourages us to be more creative in advocating breastfeeding as the best way to nourish our young.
---extract ends

The Philippines government is not only take action to protect breastfeeding. Important provisions upheld by the Supreme Court require companies to warn on labels that powdered formula is not sterile and the simple measures to reduce the risks of possible contamination with harmful bacteria. In the UK companies are failing to give this information despite the Food Standards Agency issuing its guidance to parents over 2 years ago. While companies have introduced new labels since then, they haven't brought their warnings and instructions into line and continue to misadvise parents on the telephone 'carelines'. Instead of including a requirements in the regulations to improve information for those who use formula, as health advocates were calling for, the UK government has instead advocated a voluntary agreement with the industry.

Seeing the significant gains to protect breastfeeding and to protect babies fed on formula in the Philippines should encourage us all to continue campaigning in support of governments around the world as they seek to implement and defend the minimum standards first introduced by the World Health Assembly in 1981.

But how depressing it is that my government in the UK is so lacking in political leadership on this issue.

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