Every year the first week of August is set aside as World Breastfeeding Week. This year's theme is "Breastfeeding is a vital emergency response. When a disaster strikes, everyone should be ready!" The World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action, (WABA), reminds both mothers and health care workers that emergencies can happen anywhere in the world. In their press release, they point out that infants and young children are especially vulnerable to malnutrition, illness, and death in these situations. Whatever the emergency –from earthquake to conflict, from floods to the flu pandemic – the story is the same: breastfeeding is a lifeline and a shield that protects infants in emergencies.
According to their press release, the World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF recommendations - early initiation and exclusive breastfeeding until six months of age and continued breastfeeding for two years or beyond - are even more critical in emergencies. Breastfeeding is the one safe and secure source of food and fluid for infants - instantly available, providing active protection against illness and keeping an infant warm and close to his/her mother. It also reduces the risk of post-partum hemorrhage in the mother, the leading cause of maternal mortality worldwide. In the challenging and risky environment of an emergency, how infants are fed is key to their survival.
The rationale behind this year's theme includes the following points:
- Children are the most vulnerable in emergencies – child mortality can soar from 2 to 70 times higher than average due to diarrhea, respiratory illness and malnutrition.
- Breastfeeding is a life saving intervention and protection is greatest for the youngest infants. Even in non-emergency settings, non-breastfed babies under 2 months of age are six times more likely to die.
- Emergencies can happen anywhere in the world. Emergencies destroy what is 'normal,' leaving caregivers struggling to cope and infants vulnerable to disease and death.
- During emergencies, mothers need active support to continue or re-establish breastfeeding.
- Emergency preparedness is vital. Supporting breastfeeding in non-emergency settings will strengthen mothers' capacity to cope in an emergency.
WABA is quick to point out that when an emergency strikes, simple measures can make all the difference in the world. Emergency preparedness is the key to quick appropriate actions. Mothers need to be secure and have priority access to food for the family, water, shelter and safe places to breastfeed. I recently read about a victim of Hurricane Katrina who was stuck with her newborn on a roof for many hours. When they were rescued, the baby was severely dehydrated and later died in the hospital. The nutritionist who reported the situation noted sadly that if this mother had been nursing her baby, the baby would probably still be alive. It doesn't matter whether a mother lives in a third world country or in a western nation, the ability to nurse her baby may just be the factor that saves his life.