R.P. EARNS PRAISE FOR TOUGH INFANT FORMULA CODE GUIDELINES
By Cher Jimenez
AFTER warnings of possible strained relations with foreign investors in the local milk and other sectors like pharmaceuticals because of the implementation of revised rules for the 1986 Milk Code, Manila is now receiving expressions of support from international bodies, saying that regulating infant formula is economically advantageous to the Philippines.
In a letter to President Arroyo dated October 31, World Health Organization (WHO) representative Dr. Jean Marc Olivè said promoting the culture of breastfeeding will actually reduce poverty and bring the country closer to achieving No. 4 of the Millennium Development Goal—reducing infant mortality.
Olivè indicated that an increase in the breastfeeding rate is likely to cut by about P100 million the expenses incurred by Filipina mothers to fight children’s diseases attributed to infant- formula consumption, P280 million from hospitalization, and P1 billion due to absenteeism in the workplace by employed nursing mothers.
The WHO estimates that Filipino families spend P21.5 billion a year for infant formula. This expense would also be minimized for nursing mothers.
According to him, increasing the country’s breastfeeding rate to 80 percent in the next 10 years will bring it 61 percent closer to reducing infant mortality by two-thirds by the year 2015, and achieving one of the government’s 10-point agenda.
It is estimated that at least 16,000 children under five years of age who died last year in the United States could have been saved if only they were breastfed. The WHO and the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) attribute most of the deaths to milk substitutes.
The WHO’s letter to President Arroyo came in the wake of protests from breastfeeding advocates over the US Chamber of Commerce’s alleged pressure on Malacañang not to implement the 1986 Milk Code.
In a letter to the President in August 11, the US business federation, through its president Thomas Donohue, said pushing forth with the revised implementing rules and regulations of the law would “have unintended negative consequences for investors’ confidence in the predictability of business law in the Philippines.”
“In particular, we are concerned about the effects this decision will have on the pharmaceutical industry,” added Donohue.
Earlier, the Pharmaceutical and Healthcare Association of the Philippines (PHAP) filed a petition to stop the government from implementing the new rules, which seeks to regulate the marketing of milk substitutes in all forms of media. The Supreme Court rejected the petition but accepted a petition for reconsideration in the middle of August. Breastfeeding advocates saw this as a reversal that was influenced by the alleged pressure from the American business federation.
The issue has also prompted foreign breastfeeding advocates to condemn alleged US intrusion in Philippine policymaking and challenge their local counterparts to sue and boycott milk companies. They contend that the aggressive marketing of infant formula has continued to defeat breastfeeding in the Philippines and cause many children to die of diarrhea and related illnesses attributed to cow’s milk.
Government data showed the average duration of exclusive breastfeeding in the country has gone down to 24 days in 2003 from 1.4 months in 1998. The international standard recommendation is six months exclusive breastfeeding that can afterward be combined with other foods until two years.
The PHAP in a statement affirmed its position that infant mortality in the Philippines is not related to the use of infant formula on newborn babies. It noted the Department of Health’s Philippine Health Statistics showing the top 10 causes of infant mortality are not in any way associated with infant formula use.
The DOH statistics show that pneumonia and bacterial sepsis are the top two reasons for infant mortality in the country. Other causes are respiratory distress of newborns, disorders related to short gestation, and congenital malformations.
The association also cited a survey published by Unicef that the Philippines is among the highest breastfeeding nations with 88-percent initiation rate. It’s also the second-highest exclusive breastfeeding society at four months with 47 percent. The rest, according to PHAP, may be composed of mothers who cannot breastfeed, choose not to follow to exclusively breastfeed for six months, or stop breastfeeding for some reason or another.
PHAP is currently awaiting the Supreme Court’s decision on the validity and legality of the revised implementing rules and regulations of Executive Order 51, or Milk Code and insisted the issue is not about milk or breastfeeding, but the legality of the new rules, “which is best left to the Supreme Court’s decision.”