Breastfeeding for Survival, Health & Wellbeing

The right to the highest attainable standard of health, as well as the right to adequate food and nutrition are fundamental rights of every human being. Breastfeeding provides babies with the best start in life and is a key contributor for survival, health and wellbeing of infants and mothers. 

The Lancet Breastfeeding Series published in 2016 provides the most recent and detailed analysis of available research on breastfeeding. The Series confirmed that breastfeeding has numerous benefits – including decreasing the risk of infections and increasing the intelligence of children, and preventing cancers in mothers. There is also unequivocal evidence of breastfeeding’s protection from hypertension, type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol levels, and obesity in the long term.

Support for breastfeeding mothers is essential. In the light of the overwhelming evidence on the positive impact of breastfeeding on survival, health and well-being, coordinated global action is urgently needed.

WHO, UNICEF and 20 other prominent international agencies and non-governmental organisations have recently formed the global Breastfeeding Advocacy Initiative (BAI), to unify the voices of breastfeeding advocates and galvanise political, financial and social support for breastfeeding policies and programmes. The BAI aims to increase awareness of breastfeeding as a foundation of child and maternal survival, health and wellbeing – and to advocate to governments to invest in breastfeeding.

The Global Breastfeeding Advocacy Initiative (BAI) is consistent with the Every Woman Every Child (EWEC) Global Strategy for Women’s, Children’s and Adolescents’ Health. According to EWEC:

“Breastfeeding is a fundamental driver in achieving the SDGs as it plays a significant role in improving maternal and child health, survival and wellbeing. One year into the implementation of the SDGs, we must work together to level the playing field.” 

In the Global Strategy, breastfeeding is acknowledged as an essential driver in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). EWEC highlights breastfeeding as fundamental in improving not only nutrition, but also education, maternal and child health, survival and wellbeing. Together with the movement’s core partners, EWEC supports governments with strategic interventions in order to improve breastfeeding rates, to eventually reach or exceed the WHO global target of increased rates of exclusive breastfeeding in the first 6 months up to at least 50%.

We have all of the facts in black and white about the benefits of breastfeeding, and we have devoted advocates who fight for women’s and children’s right to the highest attainable standard of health. Grassroots participation and its potential to create massive impact from simple ideas seems to be at an all-time high – a trend that will hopefully continue as the need for even more multi-level and cross-sectoral partnerships increases.

In order to achieve the SDGs by 2030, partnerships are not merely helpful to improve the health and wellbeing of the present and future generations—they are essential.

World Breastfeeding Week takes place from 1 – 7 August 2017. Celebrating collaboration and sustainability, it will focus on the need to work together to sustain breastfeeding. World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action (WABA) has created an online platform with downloadable resources available in a range of languages to support individuals and organizations in their own campaigning and advocacy. 

 

My Attempts at Facilitating Change in Rural India

In my final year of medical school, as I was reading a chapter on Maternal and Child Health, I came across a table of mortality rates elaborating the health status of mothers and children of my country. They were dismal and though I could see that progress had been made, to my 20 year old brain, it seemed insufficient and too slow to be accepted. After all, these were lives and not just numbers! The rural-urban difference made the figures look worse. I was restless. How could I bridge this gap? I reasoned – a woman was the base of the society’s pyramid and if I could do something to strengthen her I could attempt to address this gap.

I was also convinced that since most of India’s population lived in rural areas, in order to make a significant impact, I should focus on rural areas. Though I had been reared in a city and had never seen what a village looked like, I was ready to learn along the way. Itching to materialise this dream, the month I passed my MD in Obstetrics and Gynecology, I moved to Bihar; a state with one of the worst reproductive and child health indicators.

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My first project there was to strengthen the quality of maternity services in the government hospitals through hands-on training of doctors and nurses. I knew things were in a bad shape, but nothing had prepared me for what I witnessed there.
I saw up close all the things that affected service delivery to mothers coming there from far-flung villages. They ranged from attitudinal apathy to infrastructural gaps to skill deficiencies, often leading to serious health consequences for women and their babies. Working on them was overwhelming and frustrating to start with, but we eventually succeeded in transforming the hospital dynamics. Significant gains were achieved in infrastructure, hygiene and skills. Our District Hospital later received the Prime Minister’s recognition for its radical transformation. It convinced my young heart that no matter how flawed, every system was capable of change.

My next project involved setting up a health center for women and children in a village which housed some of the poorest communities, was hard to reach and had poor means of transport. It is here that I witnessed firsthand the fate of women who never reached a government facility.

It was immensely humbling for me as a woman and as a doctor to see what happened to their childbirths, to their family planning needs and to their children battling with malnutrition and pneumonia. Maternal and Childhood malnutrition was rampant and with the nearby government health centre non-functional, most deliveries were aided at home by unskilled birth attendants. Women of the village had no access to contraception and one could easily find women with up to ten deliveries. Prenatal checkups were not considered important as pregnancy was seen as a natural event, not a ‘disease’ that needed a doctor.

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I saw how quackery quickly proliferated in such places to fill the void created by a struggling government health system and how unscientific beliefs and taboos easily gripped such rural societies, vulnerable by poverty and ignorance. I also saw how the deep seated caste and gender divisions led to disempowerment of women and their children. A range of psychological issues and non-specific aches and pains in these women revealed to me their deeper emotional turmoil, isolation and loneliness, as a result of living most of their lives alone. The child bearing and the child rearing shared just with other women, while their husbands were away at better paying jobs in cities. I had to pinch myself when I saw young women being restricted to the confines of their homes due to fear of being seen by other men. With such ground realities, I had to reorient myself to move beyond providing safe childbirth and contraception to using healthcare as a tool, as a medium towards initiating deeper discussions with women, urging them to find their individuality.

I am glad I followed up on my dreams of medical school early enough. I feel happy that I am spending the most productive years of my life doing something that I find meaningful and worthwhile. Working for rural areas, its women and children, has given me my most precious moments as a doctor and as a woman.

Sisterhood Unfulfilled: A Story of Unspeakable Loss

This blog post is the first of a three part series written by: Abby Tseggai

Almost everyone knows a woman who has brought a baby into the world- and how expecting families share a similar joy, full of optimism and big dreams as they anxiously wait to hold their little baby. It is easy to forget in all the excitement that the possibility of an unfathomable reality—the death of a child—can actually occur.

I want to share with you a very personal story of girl named Fana, from Eritrea. At the tender age of seven years old, she and her family experienced a tragedy that was only the beginning of decades of havoc to follow. Fana’s little sister, died unexpectedly at just five years old from an illness unknown. The emotional trauma Fana experienced stemmed in part from losing her baby sister – but mostly, it came from having to witness her mother grieve for most of her life.

Her mother’s pain and depression was so severe that she struggled to be mentally and emotionally present for her surviving children. She couldn’t move past the loss – her mind simply could not release the intense grief. She fought her hardest to manage it daily for Fana and her older brother who was 2 years older than her. Sometimes, Fana’s mom neglected their needs, falling short on being the stable adult every child needs. What Fana did not know at the time was that this was her mom’s second such loss; a year-old son who died from an unknown illness, before Fana was even born. She knew Fana was too young to understand the magnitude of having to bury her sister too, so she sheltered Fana from that tragedy, hoping to preserve her daughter’s innocence.

As the years began to pass, Fana’s sweet memories of her litter sister were becoming more and more faint. Fana would desperately pray every night to have a little sister again. It was not until 6 years later that she was able to see her mother smile genuinely, when she told Fana she was pregnant and they were expecting a baby.  Fana was now 13 years old and able to remember every detail of hopefulness and fear she felt waiting to hold the new baby. She just knew in her heart it would be a baby girl and not a boy.

The day had finally come; Fana was waiting outside a hut made of clay. She could hear her mother screaming during labor. This was the first time she heard anything like it but luckily her mother prepared her for what to expect. After 4 hours of waiting patiently trying to ignore what sounded like a nightmare, the screams turned into desperate prayers and now included more than three people screaming and crying. Her father rushed out of the hut, picked her up and ran fast while screaming “No…No…NO!”  She begged for him to tell her what was going on because she was so confused. It was indeed a little girl her mother brought to term, however she was not breathing. No one could believe it – the baby was a stillborn. Fana’s family would now be grieving the loss of another child.

Fana’s family experienced the deaths of three children- one stillbirth and two from unknown causes. Although the stillborn mortality rate has gotten better over the decades, women and communities still suffer from the psychological, social and economic impacts of stillbirth. Africa still accounts for 2.7 million stillbirths a year. And 5.9 million don’t live to meet their fifth birthday, due to diseases that are mostly preventable. The lack of qualified midwives and health workers and the shortage of hospitals throughout the continent are still heartbreaking. Many of the deaths occurring are unnecessary. All lives deserve the same chance!

Read more about stillbirths in The Lancet Series: Ending Preventable Stillbirths.

Cover Photo Credit: United Nations, Flickr Creative Commons

Note: Cover photo is not connected to the above story. 

 

 

 

 

 

WHO Bulletin features Youth Editorial on the Global Strategy

The May 2016 issue of the Bulletin of the World Health Organization was published today.  The Volume 94, Number 5, May 309 – 404 journal has a special theme devoted to  the health of women, adolescents and children, focused on the implementation of the Global Strategy (2016 – 2030).

South African social justice writer and Girls Globe blogger, Zanele Mabaso’s article is featured amongst the high-level editorial publications, which ascribes the inclusion of adolescent outcomes in the global strategy to young people’s participation titled “Young people’s contribution to the Global Strategy for women’s, children’s and adolescents’ health (2016 – 2030)”   with contributions from co-authors Temitayo Erogbogbo and Kadidiatou Toure.

The issue additionally features young medical doctor from Benin, Dr Joannie Bewa sharing how campaigns for sex education and free contraception are changing reproductive health prospects for young people in Benin.

The Youth Editorial on Young people’s contribution on the Global Strategy for women’s, children’s and adolescents’ health (2016 – 2030) can be found here.

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