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UN Health Agency Says Breastfeeding Can Save Babies' Lives

The World Health Organization says exclusive breastfeeding can save millions of infant lives every year. As World Breastfeeding Week gets underway, W.H.O. and its partners are promoting mother's milk as the best way to give babies a healthy start in life. Lisa Schlein reports for VOA from WHO headquarters in Geneva.

The World Health Organization recommends exclusively breastfeeding babies until they are six months of age. And it says continued breastfeeding up to two years of age and beyond will greatly reduce child deaths caused by infection and malnutrition in developing countries.

WHO estimates 3.5 million children die every year of malnutrition. It says up to 1.5 million children could be saved by increasing breastfeeding.

Maria del Carmen Casanovas is a Technical Officer in WHO's Department for Nutrition for Health and Development. She tells VOA mother's milk contains important nutrients, vitamins and minerals that are found nowhere else. And these provide immunities against a host of infections and diseases.

"It defends the baby against all the potential microbia that can affect him," she said. "So, that is why the child will have less episodes of diarrhea, will have less experiences with respiratory infections and also less likely to die because of common childhood illnesses, especially diarrhea and pneumonia."

The World Health Organization acknowledges that breastfeeding may not be appropriate in all cases. For instance, if a mother is HIV-positive, she could transmit the disease to her baby through breast-feeding.

But Doctor Casanovas says WHO believes that in many places where HIV is prevalent, it still might be better for mothers to choose breastfeeding over formula milk.

"If the mother is positive, that mother needs to take an individual decision. We cannot tell the mother there is not one size fits all," she said. "According to the environment, the risk may be...of the baby dying because of other illnesses, other infectious diseases might be a lot higher than the risk of becoming HIV-positive and of dying because of the HIV."

For example, many developing countries do not have safe water and mixing contaminated water with powdered formula is a common cause of death among infants.

WHO says mother's milk is best everywhere in the world, in rich and poor countries alike. New studies show breastfeeding can protect children against chronic diseases later in life. Breast fed babies are at lower risk of getting high blood pressure, high cholesterol, of becoming obese and of developing type 2 diabetes.