In response to the emergency situation in Haiti- UNICEF, The World Health Organization and The World Food Programme have called for the support of “appropriate infant and young child feeding.” UNICEF, WHO, and WFP have also advised attention be paid to the “unnecessary and potentially harmful donations and use of breast-milk substitutes.” Without the attention of such organizations the dangers specific to mothers and their babies could easily and unintentionally be overlooked.
In the aftermath of the earthquake the major health problems among Haitian children have been intensified. In emergency situations disease and death rates among children are the highest of any age group, the youngest children are at the highest risk. Due to the devastation of the earthquake the water supply systems have been compromised which increases the risk of water borne disease. In addition many infants and young children have been orphaned or separated from their mothers. According to these organizations “appropriate feeding and care of infants and young children is essential to preventing malnutrition, morbidity, and mortality.”
It is often believed that in such stressful situations a mother’s breast milk supply will be impacted, however, this is not the case. Despite the high level of stress and inadequate nutrition- it remains that no other substance is as beneficial as breast milk in terms of meeting the nutritional needs of infants up to six months of age. It is recognized that after six months children should receive complementary feedings in addition to breast milk as well. The lifeline that is breastfeeding should be encouraged, supported and protected by any group or organization offering aid in Haiti.
So what should be done? Special attention must be paid to ensure that mothers are receiving adequate fluids and food-not only will it protect their health but will be of great benefit to their young children as well. Aid workers should make it a priority to secure mothers and their children with shelter, food, security, water, and sanitation. Organizations involved in infant feeding like UNICEF and WHO will aim to set up support systems for breastfeeding mothers and will train staff in breastfeeding counseling and support to maintain and re-establish breastfeeding.
Unfortunately there will be instances when breast-milk substitutes will be necessary. If relactation is not possible a system should be set up to instruct mothers in proper hygiene, preparation, and use of breast milk substitutes to minimize the associated risks. For those of us who want to do what we can to help it is not recommended that donations of formula, bottles or other powdered milk products be made. From past emergency experiences it has been learned that such donations could potentially endanger the lives of infants. Human milk donations require certain conditions, which cannot be currently met at present. If you would like to help please send funds rather than goods. Please make note and pass along this information; “UNICEF, WHO, and WFP strongly urge all who are involved in funding, planning, and implementing the emergency response in Haiti to avoid unnecessary illness and death by promoting, protecting, and supporting breastfeeding and appropriate complimentary feeding and by preventing uncontrolled distribution and use of breast-milk substitutes.” There is no denying that the people of Haiti desperately need our help but we me must make it a priority to educate ourselves in terms of what is the best way to make a difference.
On facebook the other day I was sent an image of a Haitian woman nursing her child who appeared to be about 2 years old. I was moved and inspired by this image and was overcome by the sense that in the thick of such devastation a young child was able to find solace and nutrition in his mother’s arms.
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