Like many who work in international development, I see things in my travels that both inspire me and sadden me. More often than not, it has to do with the children. Walking around remote villages in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, I am drawn to them, partly because I'm missing my own, and partly because they are the main indicator of the health and potential of a community.
I have three young children and I know their density -- I pick them up all the time. They're heavy. When you pick up a malnourished child it feels different, as if you were picking up a child half their age. Their density is different -- the muscle mass is different; but the smiles and the light and the vast potential of a child are the same. The heartbreaking thing is that those malnourished children will have an uphill battle to achieve their full potential.
But the smiles and the light and the vast potential of a child are the same. So how do we begin to build that potential from a child's first day? How do we build a newborn's immune system from the start, giving them antibodies to protect them against pneumonia and diarrhoea, two of the biggest killers of children, and the worst effects of other childhood illnesses? And how do we do it in some of the most resource-poor settings? The answer lies in one of the most natural acts in the world. And it costs nothing.
Exclusive breastfeeding to the age of six months, with continued breastfeeding to the age of two and beyond, is a child's first vaccine. It strengthens the body's resistance to disease, and with a strong immune system, newborns are better able to fight off infections immediately and throughout their lifetime. The cornerstone of any health system is the immune system of the people in it; this immune-boosting super food is available and costs nothing to access, and keeps the child and the health system strong as well.
Yet somehow, even with all these amazing benefits, exclusive breastfeeding rates remain stubbornly low at only 38 per cent worldwide.
How can we change that?
World Health Day on April 7 is an opportunity to draw worldwide attention to the need for safe food, this year's theme, which starts with the first food a child receives. Breastmilk is the safest food there is. It protects our youngest from disease and provides them with the nutrients they need to grow and thrive. Exclusive breastfeeding keeps infants safe from contaminated water and food, especially where hygiene and sanitation conditions are sub-optimal.
One of ways the Micronutrient Initiative is boosting breastfeeding is through our Community-based Maternal and Newborn Health and Nutrition projects in Kenya, Ethiopia, Senegal and Niger. We're working on improving the quality and uptake of antenatal care, delivery and post-natal care in hard-to-reach populations and integrating essential nutrition interventions, especially breastfeeding, into maternal health programs so that every opportunity is seized to give children the right start in life.
We're supporting pregnant and lactating women, providing them with resources in their communities, including counselling and problem solving, safe spaces and encouragement from family and peers.
We've established peer groups for both pregnant women and their husbands, promoting early and exclusive breastfeeding, in addition to iron and folic acid supplementation to help reduce anaemia and low birth weight.
In some areas, we're also working with grandmothers' groups, as mothers-in-law are often very influential in a new mother's life.
We can make a difference at health facilities, where we're working with staff on promoting breastfeeding within the first hour of a baby being born.
So on this World Health Day, please join me in doing whatever we can to encourage and enable access to breastfeeding. Keeping children safe from harm starts at birth, by giving newborns this safest of foods.
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