The World Health Organization says getting new mothers to breast-feed their infants could save 1.3 million children's lives each year. The theme of this year's World Breast-feeding Week, which begins August 1, stresses the importance of breast-feeding as a life-saving measure, especially during emergencies.

The World Health Organization says less than 40 percent of mothers around the world breast-feed their infants in the first six months.

Constanza Vallenas is WHO Medical Officer in the Department of Child and Adolescent Health and Development.   She says raising the global breast-feeding rate to 90 percent would prevent the deaths of an estimated 13 percent of all children under the age of five in the developing world.

"It gives the nutrients and the immune factors that are important for protecting infants against the most serious infections they can get, which is diarrhea and pneumonia," said Dr. Vallenas.  "It also protects against malnutrition.  The recommendation we have along with UNICEF is that infants should be exclusively breast fed, meaning without even water until six months of age.  And, from there on to continue breast feeding with appropriate complimentary foods until the age of two years or beyond."  

Dr. Vallenas says many mothers are discouraged from breast-feeding because they do not know how to get their baby to latch on properly to the breast's nipple, or because they suffer pain and discomfort.  She says this problem, which afflicts women in both rich and poor countries, could be overcome with the right practical support.

The World Alliance for Breast-feeding Action, which includes organizations such as WHO and the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), is using this week to highlight the benefits of breast-feeding in emergency situations.

Dr. Vallenas says there is a widespread misconception that stress or inadequate nutrition, commonly seen during emergencies, can prevent mothers from breast-feeding successfully.  She says this problem can be remedied with the right sort of counseling.

"One of the things we suggest is that during emergencies there are safe corners so that mothers can breast feed there, that they can receive counseling-one-to-one counseling, that they can have mothers' support groups so they can support each other," said Dr. Vallenas. "And, also that health workers or field workers should know how to help a mother re-lactate.  That is also possible.  If a mother has stopped breast-feeding for sometime, she can resume breast-feeding if she has the proper motivation and support from a skilled person." 

On a related issue, the World Health Organization says pregnant women should be made aware of the risks they face from both seasonal flu and the H1N1 swine flu pandemic.  It says expectant mothers should be given top priority in receiving antiviral drugs like Tamiflu.