By Jennie Bever Babendure, PhD, IBCLC
Last October, I learned that the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), which serves as the Regional Office for the Americas for the World Health Organization (WHO) had accepted a $150,000 donation from Nestle, an unrepentant violator of the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes along with its subsequent relevant resolutions, also known as the WHO Code. (For an overview of how the WHO Code impacts infant feeding, check out our recent Lactation Matters post by Norma Escobar.) Both frustrated and outraged, I sat down and wrote this post to call the breastfeeding world to action to defend the WHO Code from a loss of integrity from an office of WHO itself. In the days that followed, I was amazed and inspired as hundreds of IBCLCs, breastfeeding supporters, health care providers, public health advocates, mothers and fathers came forward to advocate for the health of moms and babies. People from all over the world worked tirelessly to defend the WHO Code through Twitter and Facebook, and many advocates took to their blogs to spread the word even further (PhD in Parenting, The Leaky Boob, Human Milk News, BoycottNestle to name just a few). Through this work, over 2000 people signed the petition to Urge the WHO to Cut Ties with Nestle, and just this month, both Lamaze’s Science and Sensibility and MomsRising posted articles on this topic, thanks to the advocacy work of Jeanette McCulloch, IBCLC and our own Lactation Matters Editor, Amber McCann, IBCLC. As of earlier this week, our dedicated group of advocates had reached 1000 strong, as we continue to work together to defend the WHO Code through social media as the Friends of the WHO Code.
Now ILCA is taking the campaign to the next level by making a strong public statement against the acceptance of $150,000 of Nestle funding by PAHO. In a letter to incoming PAHO director Carissa Etienne, the ILCA Board of Directors write:
“…we would like to record our extreme disappointment at PAHO’s decision to continue to accept funding from the food and beverage industry, including Nestle….. It is inappropriate and a distinct conflict of interest for the Pan American Health Organization to rely on funding and advice from the food and beverage industry on how to tackle these diseases. The implications of such a commercial interest-public health nexus are profound. Our experience in combating such inappropriate commercial influence in the area of breastfeeding and maternal-child health is long-standing. Indeed, the International Baby Food Action Network (IBFAN) and International Code Documentation Centre (ICDC), WHO monitors for the International Code [of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes], have tracked and published reports of Nestle non-compliance with the International Code for decades…
With your appointment as Regional Director of PAHO, we hope this presents an opportunity for PAHO to revisit its policy on acceptance of funds from the food and beverage industry. ”
ILCA’s sentiments are in line with those of 7 former PAHO representatives from both North and South America who wrote an open letter to the PAHO director, decrying the acceptance of funds from Nestle and other food and beverage manufacturers and asking PAHO to put policy in place to prevent this from happening.
“The fact that PAHO received money from the Coca-Cola Company and other food and beverage corporations has damaged its reputation as the leading UN organization concerned with nutrition and public health in our Hemisphere. It has signaled that PAHO policies might be constrained in advancing policies and public health actions in conflict with the commercial interests of these corporations.…We also request that you state a policy that such industries will not be invited to participate in PAHO initiatives or other work designed to formulate public health and nutrition policies.”
Adding to this message, as an NGO in official relations with WHO, ILCA responded to WHO’s March 23, 2013 request for consultation on relationships with NGOs, sending them a clear message to never engage with:
“Commercial for-profit entities that market products detrimental to health including those companies who are not meeting their obligations under the International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes and all subsequent WHA resolutions”
Why are these steps by ILCA so significant?
As an international NGO, ILCA is one of only 183 non-governmental organizations with official relations with the World Health Organization. This means that in addition to the massive amount of work we’ve done voicing the message to WHO and PAHO with tweets, blogs and on Facebook, ILCA is sending the same message formally in an official capacity, as an organization with an on-going relationship with WHO. In addition, by sending these messages, ILCA is paving the way for other organizations to formally speak out against conflicts of interest in WHO funding.
Imagine the impact if every public health organization, advocate and IBCLC sent letters to WHO and PAHO asking them to reconsider their acceptance of funding from Nestle and others in the food and beverage industry. Already ILCA, the International Baby Food Action Network (IBFAN) and 7 former PAHO representatives have voiced their concerns.
Let’s use our resources to encourage other organizations and individuals to formally register their discontent on this issue with both PAHO and WHO!
Here is ILCA’s letter, what will yours say?
Want to get involved? Join us at The Friends of the WHO Code.
Jennie Bever Babendure, PhD, IBCLC: I am mother to 2 active boys and an Assistant Research Professor in the College of Nursing and Health Innovation at Arizona State University. As breastfeeding researcher, I am constantly scanning the literature for articles that guide my research and inform my clinical practice. One of my goals is to increase the evidence base of our profession as lactation consultants. I feel it is important for lactation professionals to be aware of and contribute to breastfeeding research, especially when so much of it is fascinating! As an ongoing contributor to Lactation Matters, it is my hope that you will find the articles I highlight as interesting and informative as I do, and that you will use them to guide you in the important work of lactation professionals and breastfeeding advocates. For more research news and commentary, check out my blog at www.breastfeedingscience.com. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.