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Optimal breastfeeding reduce 20,000 maternal deaths yearly – Minister

By Oluwaseun Sonde

The Honourable Minister of Health, Dr Osagie Ehanire has said that practicing optimal breastfeeding prevent 20,000 maternal deaths annually, adding that it provides health benefits to mothers, by helping to prevent postpartum bleeding, support child spacing, lower the risk of breast and ovarian cancers and earlier return to pre-pregnancy body weight.

The Minister disclosed this during a press briefing in Abuja on Tuesday, to commemorate the 2020 World Breastfeeding Week; a weeklong long series of activities held from the 1st to 7th of August every year to create awareness and generate support for improved breastfeeding practices for good health and wellbeing outcomes for infants and young children.

The theme of this year’s celebration which is “Support Breastfeeding for a Healthier Planet” focuses on the impact of proper infant feeding on the environment, by garnering support for breastfeeding for the health of people and planet.

He highlighted the benefits of breastfeeding to both mother and child to include stronger immunity for babies, reduced risk of suffering many childhood illnesses and infections, naturally environmentally friendly, since it does not draw on any resources or create environmental pollution, longer-term health benefits including reduced risk of overweight and obesity in childhood and adolescence, with studies showing that obesity rates are 15-30% lower in breastfed babies compared to formula-fed babies.

Dr Ehanire expressed that despite these benefits, the breastfeeding indices in Nigeria are below optimal. “According to the National Demographic and Health Survey 2018, 97% of children are breastfed at one point or the other; but only 42% are put to breast within 1 hour of birth and the proportion of children 0 to 6 months who are exclusively breastfed is a mere 29%.

“The World Health Organization (WHO), in a series of Lancet publications on breastfeeding, reports that scaling up breastfeeding practices to almost universal level could prevent an estimated 823 000 annual deaths, or 13·8% of all deaths of children younger than 24 months.”

Speaking further, the Minister of Health said the Federal Ministry of Health recommends early initiation of breastfeeding within an hour of birth, exclusive breastfeeding for the first 6 months of life, continued breastfeeding up to 2 years of age or beyond and introduction of appropriate complementary food as from 6 months.

“And as part of measures to increase optimal breastfeeding practice the Ministry developed the National Social and Behavioral Change Strategy for Infant and Young Child Feeding, but a major barrier to its proper implementation is the practice by mothers and care givers, on giving water to babies from birth to the age of 6 months.

In addressing this problem, Dr. Ehanire said, The National Zero Water Campaign was launched during the 2019 World Breastfeeding Week celebration, aimed to educate Nigerians on the need to give babies only breast milk, and no other liquids in the first six months of life. The Campaign is ongoing in several States.”

The Honourable Minister further disclosed that the National Guidelines on the Baby Friendly Initiative (BFI) is currently being reviewed. He said it encompasses baby friendly services in the hospital, community and workplace; the goal of which is to incorporate programming breastfeeding as an integrated delivery in routine services pertaining to breastfeeding at health facility, community and workplace, and incorporating the revised 10 steps to successful breastfeeding.

Whilst reiterating that the Ministry’s commitment to promoting and supporting breastfeeding is resolute and is to address threats which unwholesome marketing of breastmilk substitutes (BMS) poses to optimal breastfeeding practice. He enjoined all to make a renewed commitment to do more to help the Nigerian child experience the lifesaving benefits of optimal breastfeeding. “An investment in breastfeeding is a cost-effective investment in our nation’s health, economy and future workforce the Minister stated.”

Earlier, the Minister of State for Health, Dr. Olorunnimbe Mamora in his welcome remarks, said that the theme of this year’s celebration highlights the links between breastfeeding and planetary health, aimed at informing people about the links between breastfeeding and the environment; it anchors breastfeeding as a climate-smart decision, engages individuals and organizations for greater impact.

Dr. Olorunnimbe Mamora said the theme galvanizes action for improved breastfeeding practices. His words: “Recalling that Nigeria is committed to the 1990 Innocenti Declaration which enjoins all Nations to protect, promote and support mothers to optimally breastfeed our infants and young children.”

The Honourable Minister of Women Affairs Dame Pauline Tallen who was present to express goodwill during the press briefing to mark the 2020 Breastfeeding Week, stated that commemorating the week, which dates back to 1992 coincides with the peak of advocacy around women issues and concerns during the Better Life for Rural Women Programme, is a reinforcement of the need for proper bonding for the mother and child, from birth to 6 months exclusively before the gradual introduction of water and other forms of complimentary feeding. She called on organizations at all levels to key into this initiative and set up support facilities for working mothers.

Similarly, the Country Representative of UNICEF, Peter Hawkins in his goodwill message said that almost 97% of children in Nigeria were breastfed at some point, but more needs to be done when it comes to early initiation and exclusive breastfeeding to meet global targets. “The rate of exclusive breastfeeding in Nigeria has recorded a minimal improvement over the years; 25% in 2014, down to 23.7% in 2016/17, and up again to 29% in 2018.”

He went further to say that “The global target is to increase exclusive breastfeeding rate in the first 6 months of life to at least 50 percent by 2025.” He further stated that the COVID-19 Pandemic has however impacted optimal breastfeeding practices through its effects on household incomes and perception about the safety of breastfeeding for both mothers and children.

He added that given the lack of evidence that transmission of the virus can occur through breast milk, the WHO 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.

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