Mod Midwives: The WHO Code

Note: please pardon the lack of gender inclusive language in this post/podcast. We’re we to re-record we would do better.

Although talking policy sounds a little dry, the WHO Code is something Gina, especially, is passionate about. Even in the lactation world, knowledge of and respect for the WHO Code seems to be dwindling, and we need to remember why it was created in the first place!

Simply put: the advertising and marketing of breastmilk substitutes WORKS. It decreases breastfeeding rates (initiation, exclusivity, and duration) around the world. If it didn’t work, these companies would not invest in it. And when babies are not breastfeeding, health outcomes suffer. Deaths attributable to suboptimal breastfeeding are as high as 1.45 million each year in the developing world, and approximately 3340 in the US alone (a far cry from Gina’s thought that it was around 800). This does not even account for increased incidence of things such as infections or chronic disease. These numbers are staggering–if anything else was responsible for over 3000 infant deaths each year in the US, you can bet it would be addressed. But you have to follow the money. And money follows the formula industry.

So, in the 70s people got wise to the impact these kinds of practices were having on breastfeeding and so began the boycott one of the worst offenders in the developing world: Nestle. And it was as a result of this Nestle boycott, that the WHO Code emerged–interestingly, not the other way around.

Enter the WHO Code. The WHO Code is a set of policies designed to minimize the insidious influence of formula and breastmilk/breastfeeding substitute products. Adopting the WHO Code is something that countries voluntarily do–and no surprise the US is not a signer of the WHO Code. So, basically, we’re not even going to try to protect breastfeeding from a federal policy perspective. Luckily, many other countries see the need for such policies–especially those in developing areas that understand the massive and tragic impact suboptimal breastfeeding has.

Don’t forget–the WHO Code has NOTHING to do with the sale or availability of safe substitutes for breastfeeding. It has everything to do with how these products are marketed. It is not intended to prevent access to formula, etc., it is a set of policies to prevent the undue influence of a multi-billion dollar a year industry–an industry who wants to diminish one of the most protective health behaviors. It is not about parents or choice or need–it is about predatory marketing practices. Again, to reiterate, the products that are unethically marketing to families are EFFECTIVELY decreasing breastfeeding rates. That is their goal. We must answer by impacting them in the only way they care about–the pocketbook. And that’s why we invite you to join us in boycotting non-compliant companies wherever possible. You will find this to be a difficult task–and one hard to keep up with. We love that Kellymom is keeping tabs as much as possible. They are moving targets, but we must not get complacent. That is what they want.