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WHO discusses health strategies for our region

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Low breastfeeding rates and “aggressive” baby formula marketing have been raised as an urgent issue by delegates at the World Health Organisation’s Western Pacific Regional Committee in Brisbane last month.

The annual meeting brings together ministers of health and senior officials from 37 countries and areas to decide on issues that affect the health and well-being of the Region’s nearly 1.9 billion people.

A new WHO regional action plan has been developed to strengthen protections for children from the harmful impact of food marketing.

WHO remains concerned that the baby food industry manipulates policies and practices by creating a positive public image as well as denying wrong-doing. WHO also believes evidence suggests that infant formula industry advertisements, gifts and sponsorships promote misconceptions and myths and ultimately have a negative impact on feeding practices.

Marketing of breast-milk substitutes, including infant formula, follow-up formula and growing-up milk, to caregivers continues to undermine breastfeeding in the first six months and continued breastfeeding beyond that age.

“The baby formula business is booming,” WHO’s regional director Dr Shin Young-soo said.

“And that is undermining breastfeeding.”

WHO believes that globally, 13 per cent of child deaths can be prevented with exclusive and continued breastfeeding.

Protecting children from the harmful impact of food marketing is critical in a region where more than 6.3 million children are overweight or obese. Countries were at the forum to develop a regional action plan to provide greater protection for children and support better health and nutrition, from birth onwards.

“When children are exposed to food marketing, their diets change,” Dr Shin said.

WHO and the Australian Government have also launched their first ever country cooperation strategy, on the sidelines of the 68th session of the WHO Regional Committee for the Western Pacific.

Issues discussed at the forum included: eliminating major communicable diseases, including measles and rubella, as well as mother-to-child transmission of HIV, hepatitis B and syphilis; financing of priority public health services; strengthening regulation of medicines and the health workforce; improving food safety; and health promotion for sustainable development. 

Dr Shin Young-soo said the forum was important to the region because: “Our strength in solidarity is our best defence against whatever the future holds.”

It also provided a vision for WHO’s joint work with Australia over the next five years to improve the health of Australians and contribute to better health outcomes in the broader region.

Dr Shin said the strategy with Australia is the first of its kind, but it builds on a history of strong cooperation while also looking towards the future. Traditionally, country cooperation strategies are established between WHO and developing countries, where the Organisation has offices and provides direct support.

“I sincerely thank Minister Hunt and the Department of Health for their commitment to this strategy – and for paving the way for other high-income countries in this Region, with a new form of engagement that goes beyond the traditional donor country relationship,” he said.

Health Minister Greg Hunt, who attended the meeting, said the strategy: “Strengthens our systems to guard against emerging diseases at home and abroad, boosts our public health capacities and improves our already robust regulations to ensure we have safe and effective medicines and treatments.”

Australia’s breastfeeding guidelines are in line with WHO recommendations that infants up to six months should be exclusively breastfed. However, the Department of Health Australian National Breastfeeding Strategy expired in 2015.

The AMA believes that breastfeeding should be promoted as the optimal infant feeding method. AMA has also called for doctors and other health professionals to be appropriately trained on the benefits of breastfeeding, including how to support mothers who experience difficulties with breastfeeding.

AMA’s position statement can be read here: position-statement/infant-feeding-and-parental-health-2017 .