Middle East: Decline in breastfeeding raises malnutrition concerns

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]
DUBAI, 3 Aug 2005 (IRIN) - 'Inappropriate feeding practices' are a major cause of malnutrition among children in the Middle East and North Africa region, according to aid workers promoting World Breastfeeding Week, which runs until Sunday.

"Only about half of the mothers - or fewer - in MENA countries exclusively breastfeed their infants for up to three months," said Mahendra Sheth, regional health adviser for the United Nations Children's Fund in the Jordanian, capital, Amman.

The duration of breastfeeding is gradually declining in most countries in the region, and especially in urban areas, due to aggressive advertising of formula milk and poor maternity arrangements, Sheth said.

"More women are entering the workforce in the region and opt for formula milk instead," he added.

As a result, inappropriate complementary feeding has become a major cause of child malnutrition in the region, according to UNICEF. It is highest in the age group between six months and two years.

"We found that up to 30 percent of children in places such as Yemen are underweight," Sheth explained.

Countries with high and medium rates of exclusive breastfeeding include Syria (71.2 percent) and Egypt (57 percent).

Those in the lower bracket include Iraq (30 percent), Jordan (26 percent), Kuwait and Lebanon (27 percent) and Yemen (23.3 percent).

"These hazardous practices include abrupt weaning, mixed breast and bottle feeding as early as the first month, and the premature introduction of complementary food - all of which are commonly found in MENA countries," he added.

Over 50 percent of infants under three months of age in the region are currently fed complementary foods or breast milk substitutes, according to UNICEF.

These include tea, sugar water, rice, wheat, milk, vegetables and breast-milk substitutes, often prepared in unsanitary conditions, as well as infant formula diluted with unsafe water in a non-sterile bottle.

"Some of these foods, such as tea, should not be given to children and have no benefit in feeding," Sheth said.

UNICEF is working with governments and NGOs in the region in an effort to promote breastfeeding.

Experts maintain that breast milk is the most nutritious food for babies for the first six months of life because the nutrients, antibodies, hormones and immune factors that a baby needs are passed on through its mother's milk.

If the drive for universal breastfeeding in the first six months of life were successful, an estimated 1.5 million lives could be saved each year around the world, according to the UN agency.

"As we all know, giving any other food or liquid to a child in the first six months is associated with greater risk of diarrhoeal diseases and death," Sheth said.

In addition, the poor nutritional and health status of women and female children in the lower income countries in the Middle East and North Africa region, such as Yemen and Iraq, create a vicious circle -- compromising the nutritional status of new-born babies at a very early stage.


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