Thursday, July 19, 2012

World Breastfeeding Week: Understanding the Past--Planning the Future


     I wrote the following to the NY Times Op-Ed department.  It wasn't published but I thought I'd share it with my readers.  The NY Times has a habit of publishing what I consider to be slanted articles on breastfeeding, like the recent opinion piece called, "Milk Wars."   The article sounds like the fearless formula blog.  How times have changed since I was a breastfeeding mother.  Back 30 years ago, breastfeeding did not get much if any support from the medical community.  Weaning was always the solution to any problem a mom might have while breastfeeding.  Have a headache? Must be because you are breastfeeding.  Broke your leg?  You need to wean the baby.  Having mother-in-law problems? Wean the baby.  Despite the growing body of knowledge about breastfeeding, weaning is still the solution.  How far have we really come in 30 years?

Here's the op-ed piece written for the NY Times:

     Every year prior to World Breastfeeding Week (August 1-7), media coverage of infant feeding seems slanted against breastfeeding.  As a long-time breastfeeding advocate, researcher on human milk component patents, and retired International Board Certified Lactation Consultant, I believe these articles are a distortion of reality.  The common theme seems to be about making women feel comfortable about their choice of infant formula.  The long-term and short-term risks of infant formula are not addressed.  Breastfeeding benefits are described in such a manner as to be perceived as enormous burdens.  We start to question whether breastfeeding is an important health care issue.  Or is it just a life-style choice whose promotion is making formula feeders feel guilty?
     In September of 1992, the Swedish newspaper, Dagens Nyheter had a photo of an infant at the breast with the caption, “Patent on Life:  Sweden must act to stop the patenting of a gene-manipulated woman, demanded patent lawyer Anders Hagman.”  The Green Party of Europe had learned about this pending patent application to the European Patent Office and mounted a campaign to have it rejected.  The description of this patent was that this was a patent on humans in order to gain monopoly rights to the production of drugs in women’s breasts.  This patent became known as the “Pharm Woman Patent.”  The patent was rejected by the European Patent Office.  But unknown to the public, the US Patent Office had already accepted and published this patent in 1990.  It was entitled, “Lactoferrin as a dietary ingredient promoting the growth of the gastrointestinal tract,” and owned by Baylor College of Medicine.  The source of their claim was on human and bovine lactoferrin.  Cow’s make little to no lactoferrin.  But human milk has substantial amounts of lactoferrin compared to cow’s milk.    “This present invention is based upon the discovery that milk lactoferrin as a dietary ingredient promotes the growth of the gastrointestinal tract when added to infant formula or given separately from the formula and thus reduces the occurrence of chronic diarrhea and may assist in the management of short-gut syndrome and avoids at least to some extent, chronic intractable diarrhea of the infant.”
     Baylor College of Medicine believed that lactoferrin, derived from human milk, could be used in infant formula to prevent the risk of diarrhea.  Studies in the 1980’s showed that formula-fed infants in industrialized nations had a 3-4 fold risk of diarrhea.  The inventors from Baylor also believed that short-gut syndrome was caused by a lack of human milk lactoferrin.  This was the beginning of patenting on human milk components.    There are over 2000 human milk component patents and filed patent applications at the US Patent & Trademark Office.  Human milk components, mostly their gene constructs, are being used or will be used to protect and treat not only infants but adults from a wide variety of pathogens.  Human lactoferrin is considered by some pharmaceutical companies to be an antibiotic.  Other human milk components are considered to be probiotic and prebiotic, a treatment in wound healing and cancer, and as a source of stem cells.  The infant formula industry in some countries has been adding lactoferrin to their products to better protect infants.  The infant formula, supplement, and food industries have been using the genetically engineered sugars from human milk as a prebiotic and probiotic.
     Patenting human milk components, mostly their gene constructs to make a safer infant formula tells us that the industry knows and is trying to prevent the risks of infant formula.  Pharmaceutical companies want to use those components as a source for drugs to save people from disease and cancers.  The food industry makes claims of health based on the goodness of prebiotics and probiotics, which are components of human milk. Yet, publicly we are still debating the issue of infant feeding as if breastfeeding is a lifestyle choice.  Meanwhile industry and institutions are making claims on what is produced in the human mammary gland.  Why is our society willing to own, monopolize, and commercialize human milk components?  Yet, reluctant to recognize that breastfeeding is an important health care issue? 
Copyright 2012 Valerie W. McClain

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