Study Indicates Breastfeeding Could Reduce Common Infections Among Indigenous Infants

Promoting breastfeeding could lead to a substantial reduction in common infections and even deaths that are more common in Indigenous infants than non-Indigenous infants, a new study suggests. Indigenous infants in Canada experience gastrointestinal infection, lower respiratory infection (such as pneumonia) and ear infections "in excess frequency" and are "disproportionately affected" by sudden infant death syndrome, according to a paper published today by Dr. Kathryn McIsaac of the Centre for Research on Inner City Health of St. Michael's Hospital.

Breastfeeding is known to reduce a baby's risk of acquiring infections, asthma or allergies, as breast milk contains antibodies that fight off viruses and bacteria. While 87.4 per cent of all Canadian mothers breastfeed, Indigenous moms in Canada are less likely to do so (77.8 percent). However, some studies have shown that when Indigenous mothers do breastfeed they do so for longer than non-Indigenous women.

"Interventions that promote, protect and support breastfeeding may prevent a substantial proportion of infection and mortality in Indigenous infants," McIsaac, a post-doctoral fellow in epidemiology, wrote in the Canadian Journal of Public Health.

McIsaac says it was important that any program implemented to promote breastfeeding among Indigenous mothers be developed in consultation with Indigenous women and, where possible, delivered by Indigenous women.

"One approach may be to promote breastfeeding to the women themselves," she says. "However, we recommend shifting the bulk of the responsibility for failure to breastfeed away from the woman and onto the healthcare system, where hospitals and community-based health programs should take the lead."

Dr. McIsaac's paper found that between 5.1 percent and 10.6 percent of ear infections, 24.3 percent to 41.4 percent of gastrointestinal infections, 13.8 percent to 26.1 percent of hospitalizations from lower respiratory tract infections (such as pneumonia), and 12.9 percent to 24.6 percent of sudden infant death could be prevented in Indigenous infants if they received breastfeeding.

McIsaac noted that non-Indigenous Canadian infants would also benefit from higher rates of breastfeeding. While there would be proportionately fewer instances of ear infections (3.5 percent), gastrointestinal infections (17.8 percent), hospitalizations for lower respiratory tract infections (9.7 percent) and SIDS (9.1 percent), the absolute numbers would be higher because the non-Indigenous population in Canada is larger than the Indigenous population.

Dr. McIsaac's data on breastfeeding prevalence came from the Canadian Community Health Survey and the First Nations Regional Health Survey. She also reviewed existing literature to determine the relative risk of not being breastfed on four separate health outcomes -- SIDS, gastrointestinal infection, respiratory tract infection and ear infections.

The World Health Organization recommends infants be breastfed exclusively for six months and that breastfeeding continue, supplemented by foods, up to age 2 and beyond.

Source: St. Michael's Hospital

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