Breastfeeding saves lives in emergencies, says UN health agency

1 August 2009

Breastfeeding offers babies a lifeline during emergencies, the head of the United Nations World Health Organization (WHO) has stressed as World Breastfeeding Week kicks off today.

This year's week focuses on the critical part played by breastfeeding during emergencies, including wars and natural disasters, with small children being hit especially hard by emergencies, facing a triple risk of death from diarrhea, pneumonia and undernutrition.

“The life-saving role during emergencies is firmly supported by evidence and guidance,” WHO Director-General Margaret Chan said in a statement.

According to a WHO publication, breastfeeding must begin within one hour of birth to prevent malnutrition and mortality. The agency recommends that babies are breastfed exclusively until they reach the age of six months, and then continue to be breastfed, and receive complementary food, until two years or beyond.

During crises, breastfeeding must be protected and supported through, among other measures, setting up safe corners for mothers and infants, counseling and mother-to-mother support, the agency said.

“As part of emergency preparedness, hospitals and other health care services should have trained health workers who can help mothers establish breastfeeding and overcome difficulties,” Dr. Chan said.

Together with the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), WHO has set up a breastfeeding training course to be included in emergency preparedness plans.

This year's breastfeeding week rounds out the theme – making hospitals safer in emergencies – of World Health Day 2009, the agency's chief said.

“Emergencies amplify the risk of infant and young child mortality,” she emphasized. “With appropriate action, we can protect these precious lives through one of the most 'natural' of all life-saving interventions.”


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