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Study Finds Early Breastfeeding Can Save Babies' Lives

The World Health Organization and United Nations Children's Fund say breast-feeding babies immediately after birth can prevent many neonatal deaths in developing countries. The U.N. agencies are promoting the life-saving benefits of early breastfeeding as the theme for this year's World Breastfeeding Week, which gets under way Wednesday. Lisa Schlein reports for VOA from WHO headquarters in Geneva.

The results of a study conducted in Ghana show that 16 percent of neonatal deaths could be prevented by breastfeeding infants from birth. That figure rises to 22 percent, if breastfeeding begins within one hour of birth.

Scientist and baby nutrition expert at the World Health Organization, Randa Saadeh, tells VOA mother's milk confers natural immunities to the baby.

"This is all that the child needs. It is like the first immunization," she explains. "The first shot you give the baby. It has all the immunological factors that could save and protect the neonatal, the newborn from infectious disease - mainly diarrheal disease and acute respiratory infections."

The World Health Organization estimates the lives of 1.3 million children under the age of five could be saved each year by exclusively breast-feeding babies for the first six months. It says breast-fed babies in rich and poor countries, alike, get a better start in life.

It says the issue is particularly relevant in Sub-Saharan Africa, which has the highest infant mortality rate in the world. It says about 10 percent of all babies die before the age of one and most neonatal deaths occur at home.

Sub-Saharan Africa also is the region with the highest rate of HIV/AIDS. WHO nutritionist Saadeh admits this creates a dilemma for HIV-positive mothers who have limited access to clean water and sanitation.

She says new mothers have to weigh the risk of passing on the infection to their infant against the risk of denying them breast milk.

"Exclusive breast feeding by the HIV-infected woman for the first six months of life is safer than mixed feeding," she notes. "The worst thing the mother can do is mixed feeding, which means a bit of breast feeding, a bit formula feeding, because this is the worst condition we can have."

Saadeh explains that, during the first two months of life, a bottle-fed baby is nearly six times more likely to die from diarrhea and a host of other infections than a breast-fed child. She says, in Africa, contaminated water often is used in mixing the formula.

She says another problem is poor mothers often will dilute the infant formula with a lot of water to make it last longer. She says this provides the baby with fewer nutrients, leading to malnutrition.