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Maximising the benefits of breastfeeding during COVID-19 pandemic

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Maximising the benefits of breastfeeding during COVID-19 pandemic


L- R – Minister of State for Health , Dr Olorunnimbe Mamora, Minister of Health , Dr Osagie Ehanire and Minister of Women Affairs, Dame Pauline Tallen during the 2020 World Breastfeeding Week Ministerial Press Briefing in Abuja.

Over the years, Nigeria has joined more than 170 countries to commemorate the World Breastfeeding Week to create awareness and to generate support for improved feeding of newborn babies.

The week is aimed at creating awareness and support to improve breastfeeding practices for good health and wellbeing outcomes in infants, young children and mothers.

The 2020 celebration of the World Breastfeeding Week is particularly challenging because of the COVID-19 pandemic, which, among others, challenged the safety of breast milk during the pandemic.

However, to create awareness on the benefits of breastfeeding during the pandemic, the Federal Ministry of Health organised a long week event from Aug. 1 to Aug. 7 on breastfeeding.

At a news conference organised as part of activities to mark the week, the Permanent Secretary in the ministry, Mr Abdulaziz Abdullahi, said that the advent of COVID-19 had further altered the dynamics of optimal breastfeeding through its secondary effect on household livelihood, fear of viral transmission during breastfeeding and undue exploitation by producers and marketers of Breastmilk Substitutes (BMs).

Abdullahi said “we do not want women to think that BMs are better than breastmilk.

“We are, therefore, using innovative means during the 2020 celebration due to social and physical gathering restrictions from COVID-19 pandemic to inform all that breastmilk is comparable to none other BMs.”

The Minister of Health, Dr Osagie Ehanire, said that an estimated 20,000 maternal deaths could be prevented annually if optimal breastfeeding was practiced in the country.

The minister said that the benefits of breastfeeding to both mother and child were enormous, saying: “it makes immunity of babies stronger.

“It will reduce the risk of suffering in many childhood illnesses and infections, it is naturally environment-friendly since it does not draw on any resources or create environmental pollution.

“Its long-term health benefits include reduced risk of overweight and obesity in childhood and adolescence, with studies showing that obesity rates are 15-30 per cent lower in breastfed babies compared with formula-fed babies.

“It also provides health benefits to mothers, by helping to prevent postpartum bleeding, support child spacing, lowers the risk of breast and ovarian cancers and earlier return to pre-pregnancy body weight.”

Ehanire, however, said that in spite of the benefits, the breastfeeding indices in Nigeria were below optimal.

He said “according to the Nigeria Demographic and Health Survey 2018, conducted by National Population Commission (NPC), 97 per cent of children are breastfed at one point or the other, but only 42 per cent are put to breast within one hour of birth.

“And the proportion of children 0 to 6 months who are exclusively breastfed is a mere 29 per cent.

“The World Health Organisation (WHO), in a series of the Lancet publications on breastfeeding, reports that scaling up breastfeeding practices to almost universal level can prevent an estimated 823,000 annual deaths.

“It could also prevent 13.8 per cent of all deaths of children younger than 24 months.”

He said the Federal Ministry of Health recommended early initiation of breastfeeding within an hour of birth, and exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of life.

Ehanire said that the ministry recommended continued breastfeeding up to two years of age or beyond and introduction of appropriate complementary foods as from six months.

The Minister of State for Health, Dr Olorunnimbe Mamora, said that the theme of this year’s World Breastfeeding Week highlighted the links between breastfeeding and planetary health.

The theme of the 2020 celebration is “Support Breastfeeding for a Healthier Planet”.

The minister added that the theme was aimed at informing people about the links between breastfeeding and the environment; it anchors breastfeeding as a climate-smart decision, engages individuals and organisations for greater impact.

Mamora said the theme galvanises action for improved breastfeeding practices.

He reiterated Nigeria’s commitment to the 1990 Innocenti Declaration which enjoins all nations to protect, promote and support mothers to optimally breastfeed our infants and young children.

The Minister of Women Affairs, Mrs Pauline Tallen, said that commemorating the week, which dated back to 1992, coincided with the peak of advocacy around women issues and concerns during the Better Life for Rural Women Programme.

She said it was a reinforcement of the need for proper bonding between mother and child, from birth to six months exclusively before the gradual introduction of water and other forms of complementary feeding.

The Country Representative of UNICEF, Peter Hawkins in a goodwill message, said that almost 97 per cent of children in Nigeria were breastfed at some point but more was needed to be done when it comes to early initiation and exclusive breastfeeding to meet global targets.

Hawkins said “exclusive breastfeeding in Nigeria has recorded minimal improvement over the years; 25 per cent in 2014, down to 23.7 per cent in 2016/17, and up again to 29 per cent in 2018.

“The global target is to increase exclusive breastfeeding rate in the first six months of life to at least 50 per cent by 2025.”

He further stated that the COVID-19 pandemic had impacted optimal breastfeeding practices through its effects on household incomes and perception about its safety for both mothers and children.

He, however, added that there was no evidence that transmission of the virus could occur through breast milk.

According to him, the World Health Organisation recommends that all mothers – including those with suspected and confirmed COVID-19, be encouraged to initiate and continue breastfeeding their babies, while observing all necessary safety and hygiene precautions.

The Director-General of WHO, Dr Tedros Ghebreyesus in his speech to mark the 2020 World Breastfeeding Week, emphasised the importance of the natural act of feeding babies, saying that mothers with COVID-19 should continue to breastfeed their babies.

He said “as we have seen again and again, standard public health measures are often the most effective and we are reiterating the importance of breastfeeding, which has lifesaving benefits for babies and families.

“At the time of COVID-19, especially when there is disruption to health services, WHO recommends that mothers with suspected or confirmed COVID-19 should be encouraged, the same as all other mothers, to initiate or continue to breastfeed.

“Mothers should be counselled about the many benefits of breastfeeding for newborn babies and children, which substantially outweigh the potential risks for COVID-19 infection.

“Mothers and infants should be helped to remain together while rooming-in throughout the day and night and to practice skin-to-skin contact.

“They should remain together to practice skin-to-skin contact including kangaroo mothercare, especially after birth and during establishment of breastfeeding, whether they or their infants have suspected or confirmed COVID-19,’’ he said.

Nevertheless, the COVID-19 pandemic remains a period to continue to promote breastfeeding as WHO has established that COVID-19 virus has not been detected in breastmilk, he added.

He emphasised that the pandemic period was a time to call for stakeholders’ support to do more to promote the benefits of breastfeeding, as it reduces infant mortality and provides numerous lifelong health advantages, among others. (NANFeatures)

*If used, please credit the writer as well as News Agency of Nigeria.

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