Dr Patrick Kuma-Aboagye, the Director-General, Ghana Health Service on Thursday said there has been a decline in exclusive breastfeeding in the last decade.
Having dropped from 63 per cent in 2008, to the current prevalence of 43 percent he noted that the raging COVID-19 pandemic had aggravated the situation.
Speaking at the launch of the World Breastfeeding Week, he said globally, the pandemic had caused significant disruptions in breastfeeding support services while increasing the risk of food insecurity and malnutrition.
Also, there was a growing concern that producers of baby foods had compounded these risks by invoking unfounded fears that breastfeeding could transmit COVID-19 from the mother to the child and marketing their products as a safer alternative to breastfeeding.
The launch on the theme: Protect Breastfeeding: A Shared responsibility is to revisit actions and country commitments by prioritising breastfeeding-friendly environments for mothers and their babies.
These actions include ensuring the full implementation of the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes by governments, health workers, and industry, to protect mothers from aggressive marketing practices by the baby food industry.
It is also aimed at sustaining ongoing capacity building to provide healthcare workers the needed resources and information, to effectively support mothers to breastfeed.
Employers are also encouraged to allow women the time and space needed to breastfeed, including paid parental leave with longer maternity leave, providing safe places for breastfeeding in the workplace, access to affordable and good-quality childcare, universal child benefits, and adequate wages.
He said “close contact and early, exclusive breastfeeding helps a baby to thrive, therefore a woman with COVID-19 should be supported to breastfeed safely, hold her newborn skin-to-skin, and share a room with her baby,” saying it was vital to ensure that breastfeeding mothers do not get targeted by industry or marketing professionals who wanted to jeopardise their natural ability for breastfeeding by promoting formula-feeding.
The Director-General said breastfeeding acts as babies’ first vaccine, protecting them against many common childhood illnesses, therefore breastfeeding remained central to the survival, health, and wellbeing of women, children, and nations.
Additionally, optimal breastfeeding, which entailed initiation of breastfeeding within the first hour of birth, followed by exclusive breastfeeding for six months and continuing for up to two years and beyond, offered a powerful line of defense against all forms of child malnutrition, including wasting and obesity, he explained.
Dr Kuma-Aboagye said the Week, which is celebrated annually in the first week of August, is a global campaign coordinated by the World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action, to raise awareness and galvanise action to support the effective practice of breastfeeding.
The GHS and the Ministry of Health working in close collaboration with key health partners including UNICEF and WHO, would commemorate the week’s campaign focusing on information sharing on the importance of breastfeeding, anchoring support as a vital public health responsibility, and engaging with individuals and organisations for greater impact.
The national goal, he said, was to work collectively to safeguard the health of women and children by ensuring that every child’s right to nutritious, safe, and affordable food and adequate nutrition was realised from the beginning of life, starting with breastfeeding.
“Expectant and nursing mothers require special protection to prevent harm to their infants’ health, and they need adequate time to give birth, to recover, and to nurse their children,” and at the same time, they also required protection to ensure that their jobs were not jeopardised because of pregnancy or maternity leave, he said.
Dr Kuma-Aboagye called on all stakeholders and all who had the opportunity to make investments and commitments, to support actions to reduce malnutrition including protecting, promoting, and supporting breastfeeding through stronger policies, programmes, and actions and urged community leaders and their residents to champion the cause and serve as advocates in their respective communities.