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U.S. Tries To Derail WHO Resolution Endorsing Breastfeeding


A resolution on breastfeeding was expected to easily be approved by government delegates who had gathered in Geneva for the United Nations-affiliated World Health Assembly. The resolution said mother's milk is the healthiest for children and that countries should try and limit misleading marketing of breast milk substitutes. But then the delegation from the United States threw a wrench into things. That's according to a report in The New York Times. The reporting says that the U.S. tried to water down this resolution and reportedly turned to threats against the country that planned to introduce it, Ecuador. Patti Rundall is the policy director of the British advocacy group Baby Milk Action, and she joins me on the line.

Good morning.

PATTI RUNDALL: Good morning.

GREENE: So could we start by just - if you could, tell me why this resolution was so important. Why did you want the World Health Assembly to approve it?

RUNDALL: Well, ever since the World Health Assembly recognized the importance of having a global resolution to - and a global guide - we call it the international code of marketing - that's meant to help governments control the harmful marketing - that was adopted in 1981. And so every two years, we actually go along to the World Health Assembly and help governments and show them reports of monitoring of what's going on. And every two years, more or less, there's been new resolutions that actually bring everything up-to-date and make sure that what the governments are doing is on target to meet scientific and marketing developments. So...

GREENE: It sounds like this is really important. I mean, it's really been a problem in - around the world to have misleading marketing suggesting that substitutes are as good as mother's milk.

RUNDALL: Absolutely. It's - like, it always was. I mean, when people started to wake up to the whole idea that there was something called commerciogenic malnutrition - I don't think people thought about it very much, that actually, marketing could mislead people to the extent that you would actually have babies dying. I mean, when I first started in this in 1980, it was 1.5 million babies dying every year.


RUNDALL: ...And many more millions actually not - are sick and not reaching their full potential.

GREENE: Well, that gives you a sense for how - I mean, what's at stake here. So I'm just wondering - I mean, how caught off guard were you by this move from the United States to resist this resolution?

RUNDALL: Well, if I'm really honest, it's always been the way that - actually, since the word go in the Reagan administration. They were the only country to vote against it in 1981. But ever since the Clinton administration, there was sort of consensus on this, and you actually had the U.S. softening their approach and just going along with things. They would do things - you know, you'd never rely on them for doing something good, but you certainly - you wouldn't get this really harsh approach that we're seeing now in the last year or - you know, it's really terrible. It's like...

GREENE: And just - I mean, we don't have - we only have seconds left. But is it all about protecting manufacturers of substitutes or is the story more complicated?

RUNDALL: Absolutely, and stopping - it's all about trading and trading goods that really are misleadingly marketed. So they're marketed almost as if they are infant formula for babies, which is important and is something good. These are look-alike products that are not correct for babies, and they're fueling the obesity epidemic (ph) and undermining breastfeeding. So it's terribly important that they're marketed properly, and that's what WHO and all the health community want to happen.

GREENE: Patti Rundall is the policy director for Baby Milk Action in Britain. Thanks a lot for your time.

RUNDALL: Thanks.

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