US delegation to the World Health Assembly reportedly deployed threats to try to browbeat nations into backing off the resolution
Advocates for improved nutrition for babies have expressed outrage over reports that the Trump administration bullied other governments in an attempt to prevent the passage of an international resolution promoting breastfeeding.
The US delegation to the World Health Assembly in Geneva reportedly deployed threats and other heavy-handed measures to try to browbeat nations into backing off the resolution.
Under the terms of the original WHO text, countries would have encouraged their citizens to breastfeed on grounds that research overwhelmingly shows its health benefits, while warning parents to be alert to inaccurate marketing by formula milk firms.
The New York Times first reported how the Trump administration reacted forcefully to the resolution, which otherwise had the consensus support of all other assembly members. It pushed to remove a phrase from the draft text that would exhort governments to protect, promote and support breast-feeding.
The administration also used its network of diplomats to lean on member states. Turning on the delegation from Ecuador, the US government said that unless the South American nation withdrew its backing of the resolution it would face punitive trade moves and even the potential loss of military help in its battle against gang violence.
The resolution was eventually passed with US support, but only after the Russian government reintroduced it using a modified text.
Lucy Sullivan, executive director of 1,000 Days, the US-headquartered international group working to improve nutrition for babies and infants, said in a Twitter thread that the US intervention amounted to public health versus private profit. What is at stake: breastfeeding saves women and childrens lives. It is also bad for the multibillion-dollar global infant formula (and dairy) business.
The online network of mothers, Moms Rising, called the US governments move stunning and shameful. We must do everything we can to advocate for public policies that support and empower breastfeeding moms.
Patti Rundall of the UK-based campaign Baby Milk Action told the New York Times: We were astonished, appalled and also saddened. What happened was tantamount to blackmail, with the US holding the world hostage and trying to overturn nearly 40 years of consensus on the best way to protect infant and young child health.
Under an internal code of the World Health Organisation, baby formula companies are banned from explicitly targeting mothers and their health carers. Advertising is also controlled.
A Guardian investigation with Save the Children earlier this year found that formula milk firms were using aggressive methods to skirt around the regulations in order to press mothers and healthcare professionals to choose powdered milk over breastfeeding. The measures were particularly intensively deployed in the poorest regions of the world, where most growth in the baby milk formula business is now concentrated.
A plethora of studies have shown the stark health improvements brought about by breastfeeding in the US and around the world. A Harvard study in 2016 estimated that 3,340 premature deaths a year among both mothers and babies could be prevented in the US alone given adequate breastfeeding.
The milk formula industry has been struggling against stagnating sales in recent years, but is still worth $70bn annually. The small number of giants that produce it are concentrated in the US and Europe.
One of those giants, Abbott Nutrition, is part of the healthcare multinational Abbott Laboratories that contributed to Trumps inauguration ceremonies in January 2017.
During the deliberations over the breastfeeding resolution, according to the New York Times, the US delegation made threatening suggestions that Washington would cut its funding for the WHO. As the single largest donor to the world body, awarding $845m last year, that threat would not have been taken lightly.