Unicef's deadly mission

Posted: Dec 08, 2000 12:00 AM
"Breast is best." No, it's not the new slogan for Hooters restaurant. It's the mantra of breast-feeding advocates who promote their cause with a cult-like fervor around the world. Their extremism must be condemned. I have nothing against breast-feeding. After weighing the pros and cons, I've been nursing my 5-and-a-half-month-old daughter since birth. Mother's milk offers my baby health benefits that man-made substitutes can't match. But in the hands of the United Nations Children's Fund, the breast-feeding crusade is killing the children it's supposed to protect. In a horrific investigative report published in the Wall Street Journal this week, reporters Alix M. Freedman and Steve Stecklow expose Unicef's homicidal mission to discourage AIDS-positive mothers from switching to infant formula. The United Nations' own statistics show that an estimated 3.4 million children have contracted AIDS from their mothers and died of the disease. Between 1.1 million and 1.7 million of those children, mostly in Africa, are believed to have been infected with HIV through breast-feeding. There is a very simple solution: feed the babies formula. Top manufacturers Nestle and Wyeth are ready and willing to provide tons of tins of free formula to poor women in sub-Saharan Africa, the Journal reports, but Unicef adamantly refuses to support their offers. The agency's health bureaucrats wield great influence in the Third World. The head office in New York is led by anti-corporate activists who care more about sending political messages to formula makers than about sending life-saving nourishment to babies in jeopardy. Unicef's grudge dates back to the 1970s, when breast-feeding extremists began a boycott of Nestle and other companies. The protesters believe the formula makers "exploit" underprivileged women in developing nations by creating a "dependency" on infant formula. The companies can't win. When they try to sell their products abroad, they're accused of profiteering. When they try to give their goods away, they're accused of public-relations gimmickry. The Journal reports that Unicef executive director Carol Bellamy, a former New York City Council president, angrily rebuffed efforts by Nestle to assist HIV-infected mothers. Wyeth's offer in 1998 to donate tons of free formula to African hospitals was scrapped when company officials simply asked Unicef not to bad-mouth them publicly. Bellamy instead insists that the major formula makers comply with an inane U.N. regulatory code -- passed long before AIDS hit Africa -- which bans the distribution of free and low-cost formula. Ayn Rand couldn't make this up. Unicef would rather throw millions of dollars worth of formula out with the babies, than undercut collective support for what they consider a morally superior choice to breast-feed. Rather than accept free infant formula and save lives immediately, Unicef recommends that African women with AIDS allow their babies to breast-feed from other women. But there's a good chance that the babies will simply be getting infected milk from another woman. One Unicef official blithely supports pasteurized milk as an alternative when mothers contract AIDS. But babies don't usually begin drinking cow's milk until after one year. Without formula, mothers turn to dangerous substitutes such as sugar water and rice water. Unicef's lieutenants in the breast-feeding camp continue to attack formula as unsafe and unhealthy. But in the developing world, iron-fortified formula is often superior to the milk of sick, malnourished women. Here in the West, we enjoy the comforts of fresh fruits and vegetables, multivitamins, and folic acid supplements -- not to mention fancy electric pumps, bottles, and refrigerators to store breast milk safely when we have to separate from our babies. In sub-Saharan Africa, mothers are lucky to eat a half-cup of rice per day -- and must often work all day, away from their children, without the luxury of nannies, wet nurses, and basic health amenities. Nevertheless, Unicef executive director Carol Bellamy, told the Journal reporters: ""We continue to advocate that breast is best." Even if it kills.