Unicef, Baby Formula Makers Fight While Infants Die

Women in Africa, who have recently given birth, are being sent home from the hospital with a warning that breastfeeding could kill their children. Unfortunately, many of these women have no alternative.

They are forced to choose between watching their child starve to death, or later die of AIDS. With more than 15 million people in sub-Saharan African dead from the epidemic, the warnings are sincere but insufficient.

UNICEF, an arm of the United Nations, is fighting with baby formula companies to give women an alternative. An estimated 1.1 million infants have become infected with AIDS from their mother's milk. However a political battle keeps formula from reaching those in need. Major baby formula companies are willing to donate; UNICEF is not willing to receive.

In the 1970s, Nestle and other formula makers gave free samples to mothers in developing countries. However, the free samples quickly ran out and women began diluting the formula to feed their children. After their milk had dried up and the formula was gone, many children began dying of starvation. Most women simply could not afford to buy the formula.

Protesters worldwide held Nestle and other formula companies responsible for luring poor women into using their product with pictures of fat-formula fed babies. UNICEF refused cash donations from formula makers, as it has done with tobacco companies and the makers of land mines.

In the 1980s, the World Health Organization released a document specifically labeling how baby-formula companies could advertise and prohibited the distribution of free samples. However, this policy was established long before the AIDS epidemic hit Africa. UNAIDS officials said that UNICEF should put aside any problems with the companies out of a moral obligation to the millions suffering in Africa. Wyeth-Ayerst Laboratories Inc. and Nestle have both said they would be willing to donate significant amounts of formula if asked.

However, the companies are not willing to donate the formula without the consent of UNICEF. They fear bad publicity and further boycotts.

In the meantime, an estimated 90 out of every 1,000 women in sub-Saharan Africa are suffering from AIDS.

Source: The Wall Street Journal