It is hardly surprising that Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi has been applying his considerable energy towards infant nutrition. South Africa is one of only 12 countries in the world in which the infant mortality rate has increased, making the situation untenable.
South Africa’s under-five infant mortality rate is more than 60 deaths for every 1 000 live births — 20 times higher than France and among the highest in Africa.
Obviously, the shockingly high HIV and Aids infection rates play a massive role in South Africa’s high infant mortality rates: about 35% of under-five infant deaths are attributed to these diseases. But impaired immunity against infections, low birth weight and too little nutrition also extract heavy tolls.
Fundamental to the health department’s strategy to reverse these sad statistics is the promotion of exclusive breastfeeding. The government has discontinued the practice of supplying free baby formula to state hospitals and clinics, unless it is recommended by a healthcare practitioner.
Breastfed babies are better protected against the infectious diseases that are largely responsible for South Africa’s high child mortality figures: diarrhoea, respiratory illness and pneumonia.
WHO don’t mince their words
The World Health Organisation is unequivocal about the benefits of breastfeeding. It states: “As a global public health recommendation, infants should be exclusively breastfed for the first six months of life to achieve optimal growth, development and health.”
There is considerable research indicating that adults who were breastfed as babies will be less prone to obesity and the long list of chronic diseases that go hand in hand with being overweight, such as coronary heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
What is little known by the general public is that breastfeeding is also beneficial to the mothers. Studies have shown almost conclusively that there is a reduced risk of osteoporosis in later life, as well as a lower risk of contracting breast, uterine and ovarian cancers. Moreover, breastfeeding mothers tend to return to their pre-pregnancy weight quicker and the likelihood of falling pregnant while breastfeeding is reduced. From a psychological point of view, no one really needs convincing that breastfeeding cements a mother-and-child bond that is unshakable.
But what about the chances of HIV-positive mothers passing the virus on to their babies through breastfeeding? Again the World Health Organisation — and the South African government — is resolute in its opinion that exclusive breastfeeding is a safe option and the benefits far outweigh any potential risks.
Research shows breastfeeding reduces chances of HIV contraction
In fact, research has proven that if a baby of an HIV-positive mother is exclusively breastfed, the chances of the baby being infected are greatly reduced when compared with a baby that is fed a combination of breast milk and baby formula.
The nutritional recommendations for the babies of HIV-positive mothers are that they should be exclusively breastfed for the first six months, after which complementary foods can be introduced. Antiretroviral therapy for both mother and baby is also recommended.
Of course, exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months brings many challenges. Many working mothers find it hard to breastfeed their babies during working hours because there are few or inadequate facilities in the workplace. Teenage mothers also have their own set of problems, such as having to leave the baby with a relative while they attend school.
The bottom line? Breast milk is infinitely superior to any formula counterpart. Breastfed children are more resistant to diseases and infection than formula-fed babies. And breastfed babies are less likely to contract diseases such as juvenile diabetes, multiple sclerosis, heart disease and cancers before they reach their mid-teens.
Breastfeeding will be the topic of Bonitas House Call on March 3 at 9am on SABC2