When Ecuadorian delegates introduced a resolution at the World Health Assembly in May imploring governments worldwide to encourage breastfeeding and discourage inappropriate promotion of baby formula as a better choice, it was seen by most other countries as uncontroversial and expected to pass quickly. But when American officials politically threatened Ecuador in an effort to strike it down, thousands of health advocates around the world were stunned.
The United States upended deliberations among members of the World Health Organization for no discernible reason, appearing to ignore science, global community and public well-being in favor of corporate interests and personal views. If the United States continues to meddle in international science, WHO shouldn’t be afraid to prioritize international health and science over American words in the future.
The United States said it sought to block the document because it “placed unnecessary hurdles for mothers seeking to provide nutrition to their children,” according to The New York Times. President Trump claimed on Twitter that that the United States was trying to protect poor women’s access to formula.
While it is true that some women need formula because they are unable to breastfeed for medical reasons, the consensus of most medical organizations such as March of Dimes is that “breast is best” — especially for infants born to poor families.
Breast milk provides essential nutrients as well as hormones and antibodies that protect against disease. And babies raised in impoverished settings are much better off being breastfed since their families often cannot access clean water or afford pricey formula. The average price of formula per year is $1,733.75 — the median annual household income worldwide is $9,733.
It’s hard to say what the Trump administration’s exact reasons were for trying to block the resolution — Trump’s claim that there is a large need for formula is thin and the original The New York Times report explains the move as the administration siding with corporate interests.
There is evidence to support that notion — the $70 billion baby formula market has seen sales flatten in wealthier countries while interest is growing in developing countries. And during the same Geneva meeting where the breastfeeding resolution was debated, American officials succeeded in removing statements supporting soda taxes from a document advising countries on rising rates of obesity.
The president’s personal outlook on the matter may also be at play here — attorney Elizabeth Beck accused the president of having an “absolute meltdown” when she requested a break from a 2011 deposition to pump breast milk. Representatives for Trump claim he did so because Beck was about to breast pump in the middle of the room.
“He got up, his face got red, he shook his finger at me and he screamed, ‘You’re disgusting, you’re disgusting,’ and he ran out of there,” Beck said.
Whatever Trump’s personal reasons, it was not worth threatening a country like Ecuador — where 70 percent of its rural population resides in poverty — with retaliatory trade sanctions and decreased military aid.
It took two more days before an agreement and the resolution was finally reached, only after Russia introduced a modified text minus language calling for a halt on “inappropriate promotion of foods for infants and young children.”
Next time, WHO shouldn’t be afraid to prioritize public health and established scientific agreements over American interests. If the United States ever makes similar threats again, other countries should step forward immediately to assist the target or denounce America’s actions.
American officials should also consider what threatening another country over what should be a simple matter makes them look like in the eyes of the world, especially if they take umbrage with another simple document supporting international health again.
The United States is a part of a global community — it is time American officials realize this and ensure their actions assist the international community on all counts.