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The Breast Milk Cure.... or Curse? It's the Water Not the Formula

Posted Jun 27 2011 10:41am
 Breast milk, the miracle cure for child malnutrition and global poverty?

Nicholas B. Kristof, The New York Times, The Breast Milk Cure

That's what New York Times foreign affairs columnist (i.e. not a trained science writer) proposed in his latest compassionate yet flawed, okay, botched attempt at public health advocacy - The Breast Milk Cure
What if nutritionists came up with a miracle cure for childhood malnutrition? A protein-rich substance that doesn’t require refrigeration? One that is free and is available even in remote towns like this one in Niger where babies routinely die of hunger-related causes?
Impossible, you say? Actually, this miracle cure already exists. It’s breast milk.
Why is it such a good cure?  It's natural, readily available and oh yeah - doesn't include contaminated water

Oh that minor issue - the water.  The filthy water used to make infant formula. 

Citing research showing a link between breastfeeding and lower mortality rates (hello, confounding factors!! correlational results!!), Kristof eagerly argues breastfeeding can save lives as do the experts he digs up: 
“As far as nutritional interventions that have been studied, we have crushing evidence of breast-feeding’s efficacy in reducing child mortality,” said Shawn Baker, a nutrition specialist with Helen Keller International, an aid organization that works on these issues.

Crushing evidence for sure but evidence of the curative powers of breast milk? No, not exactly.  Maybe evidence of the Curse of Breast Milk - health authorities the world over ignoring what the data really say in order to glorify the almight powers of breastfeeding. 

The curative powers of breastfeeding have little to do with breast milk and plenty to do with the fact babies who get the boob don't have to suffer the dirty water.

Gee, do you think the moms who nurse could be more informed say, about children's health? Might they differ in any number of substantial ways from those who didn't opt for the breast?  Hmmm.  

Why oh why can't public-health minded peeps be honest and accurate about the benefits and limitations of breastfeeding?

No child has ever died due to insufficient breast milk.  Despite that crazy Harvard study shouting about 900 annual baby deaths - there is no evidence whatsoever that not breastfeeding kills infants.  In Niger where Kristof focused his editorial insights, children die because of the unsafe water and a host of poverty-related factors that have nothing to do with sub-optimal levels of breast milk.

Should more women in Niger breastfeed? Absolutely.

Only 9% breastfeed exclusively for 6 months (compared to 13% in the US) according to Mr. Kristof who opines on the reasons women in Africa breastfeed in such low numbers. 

That's when the you-know-what really starts flowing
It’s not clear why a human instinct to nurse went awry.  Just like the instincts to kill our competitors, our babies and run like hell when we hear a  loud noise? Speaking of going awry...Does it have something to do with the sexualization of breasts? In Africa? Has he seen the movie Babies in which it becomes clear even to my 8-year old that breasts are just another limb and not a cash cow for the fashion and cosmetic-surgery industries.  Or with infant formula manufacturers, who irresponsibly peddled their products in the past but are more restrained now? Maybe formula should be outlawed? Along with high fructose corn syrup, trans fats and white bread, I mean honestly, aren't those parents in Africa worried about their children's health? I know there's a horrific famine and all but honestly, stooping to formula? Or is it just that moms worry that their babies need water on hot days? Nobody really knows.  Mainly because no one has bothered to figure it out because it's so much more productive churning out flawed studies showing links between breastfeeding and health benefits.   
Then there's the fact that it's not easy charging up a double breast pump in the middle of the Sahara desert.  It's not like women can run over to the nearest village and find breast milk storage bags either to say nothing of the perfect nursing bra or nipple cream.

Hey, honey, on your way to the military coup, could you pick up another Boppie cover?

So, please, Mr. Kristof, get the story straight.  Doesn't take a genius to poke holes in your plaintive plea. You've won the Pulitzer, you are a genius and by the way, you have a huge stage.  You the man, don't abuse it.
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