Capitalizing on fears, companies promote breastmilk substitutes during the pandemic

Breastfeeding saves lives and provides antibodies that give all babies a healthy boost and protect them against many infections. Antibodies and bioactive factors in breastmilk may fight against COVID-19 infection, if baby is exposed.

Manufacturers of breastmilk substitutes (BMS) are capitalizing on COVID-19 fears by using health claims and misinformation about breastfeeding to deceive millions of breastfeeding mothers into using breastmilk substitutes, a new review of their promotional materials and activities in major world regions shows. Alive & Thrive programs across the globe collaborated to complete the study.

Read the abstract and access the full text of the paper here.

“These tactics are not new, but the pandemic has provided a new entry point, helped along by the unprecedented boom in digital marketing,” said Roger Mathisen, director of Alive & Thrive’s program in Southeast Asia, and co-author of the study. “These tactics clearly violate the International Code of Marketing of Breast-Milk Substitutes, and are unconscionable at a time when mothers and families are particularly vulnerable.”

“Breastfeeding and its nutritional and protective health benefits are particularly important in the context of COVID-19, as the pandemic is straining health care systems and increasing food insecurity, especially in low- and middle-income countries,” added Manisha Tharaney, director of Alive & Thrive programs in West Africa.

Breastfeeding is critical to maternal and child health and survival, and its protection persists throughout the lifespan. Inappropriate marketing of BMS, feeding bottles, and teats threatens the enabling environment of breastfeeding, and exacerbates child deaths, diseases, and malnutrition, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. The costs of not breastfeeding are well known.

Alive & Thrive researchers in the Southeast Asia and West Africa regions and at country offices in the Philippines and Burkina Faso collaborated to review various companies’ promotional activities. They analyzed promotional activities and materials dating from 30 January 2020, when the WHO declared COVID-19 a “public health emergency of international concern.”

The promotional materials, in multiple languages, appeared on the internet (e.g., infant feeding and child nutrition blogs, social media, company websites), in print magazines, in information sent to networks of health officials and professionals, at health facilities, and in shops. Among all the collected data, examples that made direct or indirect references to or coincided with the COVID-19 pandemic were selected for further analysis.

In all, promotional materials and activities from nine companies in 14 countries used various messaging tactics to market breastmilk substitutes. The messages reached millions of mothers and families.

“These tactics show a clear disregard for the health of mothers and children,” Tharaney said. “Companies used strategies such as donations to governments at a time when they are already vulnerable.

“It’s alarming that the companies – fully aware of how important breastfeeding is to the health of mother and child – would promote their products during a public health emergency, precisely when infants need the best nourishment and protection available – breastfeeding.”

The authors propose using the monitoring findings to inform World Health Assembly (WHA) actions, which at its meeting in May will mark the 40th anniversary of the International Code of Marketing of Breast-Milk substitutes. Further, the findings should be used for targeted enforcement and to address misinformation about breastfeeding in the context of COVID-19. Over the longer term, the authors said that more needs to be done to hold social media platforms accountable, raise public awareness on the Code, engage health workers and mobilize community monitoring.