I've been blogging about women and the Bible recently, hoping to offer a fresh and challenging perspective to the traditional interpretation of gender roles. I interrupt this series to present a news story that not only affects women, but also their newborn babies.
This is a story about American businesses taking advantage of poor, uninformed mothers, using them for profit, and then leaving them with the negative health results. Southern Baptists like to talk about the "sanctity of life." We even have a special Sunday on which to recognize it. This is a sanctity of life issue. Read, get angry, and then do something about it.
Almost every mother in the Western world knows that, whenever possible, breast feeding is the best way to provide one's infant with balanced, age-specific nutrition, and immunities that prevent infections. Medical research shows that formula-fed babies can suffer poor nutrition, stunted growth, and decreased IQ, along with numerous life-long risks.
Why then, in the Philippines, as in much of the global South, is infant formula powder a booming industry? Because US-based infant formula companies, including Wyeth and Mead Johnson, and European-based companies, including Glaxo-SmithKline and Novartis, spend $100 million every year advertising their lucrative breast-milk substitutes in the Philippines and lying to the Filipino people about the benefits of infant formula over breast milk.
Television ads for formula feature prodigy violinists and boast of "brain building blocks," and "IQ nutrition systems." These and other false advertisements lead Filipino women to believe that their bodies do not produce enough milk to nourish a child. To make matters worse, health professionals in the Philippines often agree to promote formula to their patients in return for incentives and commissions. Ever notice the pharmaceutical advertisements plastered all over your doctor's office. Well, this is is the same kind of problem, but on steroids.
Representatives from formula makers will distribute brand-name merchandise and samples to healthcare facilities in order to entice new mothers into formula consumerism. If families take the bait and start bottle-feeing with the free powder, milk production in the mother decreases. Then, when the free samples run out, mothers are faced with the artificial need to bottlefeed their infants. Impoverished families then struggle to buy powdered formula, often choosing to lessen the powder-to-water ratio to make it last longer.
(Do I even need to mention the fact that since infant formula must be mixed with water, it is especially dangerous for those living in areas with poor access to clean drinking water? If mothers mix their child's substitute milk with dirty water, infants' weak immune systems are exposed to all sorts of bacteria and viruses, which can cause cycle after cycle of diarrhea and malnutrition.)
As a result of the marketing geniuses at Wyeth, Novartis, Mead Johnson, and Glaxo-SmithKline, who received hefty bonuses for their fantastic work in the Philippines, a whopping 84% of Filipino babies are now formula-fed. What is even more astounding is that this is the reality even though the cost of bottle-feeding is at least $43 a month, in country where the average income is $118 a month. And, current statistics show that nearly one out of over three babies in the Philippines is underweight at age 1.
Some of my readers will know that this is not the first time a formula company used lies and trickery to entice poor mothers to become dependent upon their products. The Infant Formula Action Coalition started a boycott of Nestle products because of their unethical marketing practices in the developing world. The boycott stretched from 1977-1984 and then from 1989-the present. In 1981, even the World Health Organization was compelled to get involved, ratifying an international code on the marketing of breast-milk substitutes.
After a long legal battle with US-based formula companies, in 2007, the Supreme Court of the Philippines finally ruled that some of WHO recommendations, adopted by the Filipino Department of Health, could be put into effect. For now, breast-milk substitute labels will have to state the risks of inappropriate formula feeding and there will be some limitations on advertising with "pictures or texts that idealize infant and milk formula."
Despite this small victory, Dr. Marsden Wagner, former WHO Director of Women's and Children's Health, has this to say: "Women are being brainwashed about infant formula. Breastfeeding will increase only when there is control of this industry by the government through laws and regulations which ensure women get the right, scientific information [and when] doctors and hospitals are 'baby friendly.'"
Perhaps is it appropriate that I am posting this story on the day in the US that we celebrate the life and achievements of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. On April 4, 1967, when speaking against the Vietnam War, Dr. King said, "I could not be silent in the face of such cruel manipulation of the poor." I hope that we can say the same.
And, for the executive fat-cats who watch while gross injustice plagues poor women and children in the developing world, I hear the words of Amos echoing in my head:
"You trample on the poor
and force him to give you grain.
Therefore, though you have built stone mansions,
you will not live in them;
though you have planted lush vineyards, you will not drink their wine.
For I know how many are your offenses
and how great your sins.
You oppress the righteous and take bribes
and you deprive the poor of justice in the courts."
- Amos 5:11-12
(Sources: BBC: Breastfeeding declines in Asia, UNICEF: Philippines: Mothers demand truth about infant formula, UNICEF: Philippine Supreme Court lifts ban on Milk Code, Asia Times: Spilled corporate milk in the Philippines, and Sharon Craig, "Milking the Innocent," Sojourners [Feb 2008]: 8-9.)