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IBFAN Press Release 28 January 2000

January 2000 WHO Executive Board Meeting in Geneva.

Text of today's intervention by Dr. Arun Gupta on behalf of Consumers International/IBFAN

Agenda Item 8.2: Infant and Young Child Feeding.

Mr Chairman, Director General, Members of the Board, friends, good afternoon. I welcome the opportunity to speak on behalf of the International Organisation of Consumer Unions, which I will refer to as CI. On the issue of infant feeding, CI is a partner with the International Baby Food Action Network, (IBFAN) a network of over 150 citizens groups who have been working to protect infant health in more than 90 countries, for the last two decades.

We welcome the report of the Secretariat on infant and young child nutrition and the report of the collaboration within the UN system especially regarding the ILO Maternity Protection Convention. We would urge greater support for breastfeeding and maintaining the right to nursing breaks for working mothers.

Since time is limited, I shall concentrate on 4 issues:

Firstly, the question of new partnerships.

We recognise WHO's desire to develop new partnerships with the private sector. This effort to encourage social responsibility by corporations is a laudable motive. However when linked to fundraising, the dangers that such partnerships will be used for public relations purposes and dependency are great. For companies, sponsorship of good causes is a well-known marketing tool, which they often use to offset criticism.

Companies are experts at PR, and have enormous resources and some have annual promotion budgets 4 times the size of WHO's total budget - which they can use to advertise even the smallest reference to "partnership" with a prestigious organisation such as WHO.

An example, of how public relations is used is this 180 page book, which is addressed to the Director General and has been sent to governments, health workers and NGOs all over the world. The book contains letters from more than 50 governments, which a company claims testify its compliance with the International Code. IBFAN had to spend time, energy and funds to analyse this document and the company has now had to apologise to several countries for misrepresenting their views. These are not simple errors. This is not the effective monitoring expected.

UNICEF has also done an analysis and in their letter of 31 December 1999 to the company has stated that in at least 21 countries the claims of national Code compliance could not be supported and also questioned the appropriateness of the methodology that has been used.

Secondly and related, the issue of commercial sponsorship and conflict of interest is of critical importance in infant feeding, and especially in HIV where so many questions regarding the impact of different patterns of breastfeeding remain unanswered. We have the right to expect that the direction and research priorities of the UN are not influenced by commercial interests. The pharmaceutical and baby food industry, both have clear vested interests in the outcome of research into Mother to Child Transmission and are urging UN agencies to enter into partnerships, allegedly in an effort to rescue babies but in reality they are hoping to expand their markets. One US baby milk and pharmaceutical company on its website, in July 1999 stated that:

" also increases sales of HIV products by developing the HIV marketplace...the returns will ultimately materialise...most of this HIV market is untapped..."

Should such a company provide information for mothers and doctors on HIV and infant feeding? Should it be encouraged to take women to be tested for HIV in countries such as South Africa?

Thirdly, in Doc EB 105/36, paragraph 12, entitled, Progress in implementing the International Code states that 160 (84%) Member States have reported to WHO on action taken. This projects much too rosy a picture. We know that only 21 countries have implemented the International Code and the relevant Resolutions in their entirety by enacting legislation while another 24 have sound draft laws pending enactment. We hope that interference by industry will not delay the enactment of these drafts at country level.

IBFAN has contributed significantly to national legislation by training some 400 government officials from 90 countries and developing the IBFAN Code Handbook, which now exists in 4 languages. Another important contribution is IBFAN's continuous health worker training, monitoring, and raising awareness, campaigning and advocacy. Thousands of health workers and millions of people at grass roots level are now aware of the Code and Resolutions and are taking action to protect infant health.

Lastly, we would like to draw your attention to the following suggestions:

  • IBFAN has submitted comments about some of the serious weaknesses contained in the first draft of the Guidelines for Interaction with Commercial Enterprises and we strongly urge WHO to take them into account. We do have copies available for Members.
  • We encourage WHO to ensure that its entire staff consistently uphold the importance of the Code and Resolutions at all times, and especially when dealing with media and other enquirers.
  • The European Parliament has decided to hold regular Public Hearings, in which the activities of European-based companies in relation to developing countries will be examined. The baby food issue is the first item on the agenda. WHO might like to assist parliamentarians in this endeavour.
  • WHO could write to its WRs to confirm, or not, statements made in the book I referred to earlier.

In a world where health care systems and services are increasingly being privatised, there is an urgent need for WHO to protect its status as a truly independent advocate for human rights and public health. WHO is the highest health policy setting body in the world, and CI, as well as IBFAN, are more than keen to work with you. However, we do urge WHO to ensure that its policies, programmes and research priorities, reflect its mission at all times, so that our efforts to protect infants, children and their mothers are in harmony.

Thank you for giving us the opportunity to speak to you today.

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