06/12/2012 13:44 GMT | Updated 04/02/2013 05:12 GMT

If We Know Breast Is Best, Why Are We Allowing the Baby Food Industry to Get Away With 'Murder'?

On the eve of the World Breast Feeding Conference taking place in Delhi this weekend, a special international report released by the World Breastfeeding Trends initiative reveals some profoundly shocking and worrying statistics. The study of 51 countries, which makes up two thirds of the world's children, demonstrates that only 40% of children born in these countries were exclusively breast fed for the first six months as recommended by the World Health Organisation and UNICEF.

The science underpinning the importance of breast feeding has been well documented and cannot be overstated. In 2003 the Lancet published a series on child survival emphasising that exclusive breast feeding, if universalised, could save 13% of all under five deaths, (an estimated 1.3million in the 42 high mortality countries). Breast milk is a unique nutritional source that not only helps protect infants from infection, but is also extremely important for child brain development and the prevention of child obesity, hypertension and cardiac diseases in later life.

There are also tremendous health benefits for breast feeding mothers, who are less likely to develop osteoporosis, are able to lose weight gained during pregnancy more easily and are at a reduced risk of developing breast, uterine and ovarian cancer. But this is not just an issue confined to developing countries. The United Kingdom has one of the lowest rates of breast feeding in Europe with the latest statistics for England stating that while 73% of new mothers initiate breastfeeding the number rapidly declines to 45% by 6-8 weeks. Professor Mitch Blair, the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health's Officer for Health Promotion says that "breastfeeding is the healthiest way to feed your baby for the first six months and is known to build a strong physical and emotional bond between mother and child. Research has shown that breastfed babies are less likely to get diarrhoea or vomit, have fewer chest and ear infections, and are less likely of becoming obese. If all UK infants were exclusively breastfed for six months, admissions to hospital due to diarrhoea would be halved and those due to respiratory infections would fall by a quarter."

It's important to recognise and be sensitive to the fact that for various reasons not all women will be able to breastfeed their babies exclusively for six months, but this should apply to a small minority, not the overwhelming majority. So what is the most important cause of this noncompliance which is resulting in hundreds of thousands of premature infant deaths and unspeakable suffering throughout the world? I believe it is the over promotion and aggressive unregulated marketing of baby food products to vulnerable young mothers that not only increases the acceptability of infant formula but is contributing to this significant disease burden including rocketing rates of child obesity.

Patti Rundall, director of Baby Milk Action UK, is particularly scathing of the industry. "The most irresponsible baby companies see malnutrition as a profitable business and the perfect cover for their ' top strategic priority' which is as it always has been - to change traditional food patterns and cultures, extend bottle-feeding for years on end and encourage everyone to snack on 'slightly better for you' junk foods all day long."

Profit is clearly a very powerful motivator even at the expense of children's health. The global baby foods and infant formula market is projected to reach a staggering 30billion US dollars by 2018, but as the report highlights there are also major gaps in policies to protect breastfeeding including weak implementation for the marketing of breast milk substitutes. Earlier this year one of India's leading paediatricians Dr Arun Gupta filed charges against Nestle for allegedly violating laws against the correct labelling of infant formula products and for associated failings regarding advertisements in women's magazines.

The report emphasises that although legislation surrounding breastfeeding practices in many of these countries exists, governments are either under resourced or toothless to implement them. Powerful financial institutions continue to profit at the expense of our health. There is often a conflict between politics, corporations and ethics. But without effective intervention it is the poor, our children and the most vulnerable members of society that will suffer the most and health inequalities will continue to widen. Let us hope the inspiring voices of health campaigners in Delhi this weekend serves as a rallying call to influence policymakers to make doubly sure that exclusive breastfeeding for six months is a human right for both women and infants.