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The milk of human kindness

BMJ 2001; 322 doi: (Published 06 January 2001) Cite this as: BMJ 2001;322:57
  1. Gavin Yamey
  1. BMJ

    How to make a simple morality tale out of a complex public health issue

    After years of being hated by advocates of breastfeeding, Nestlé and the rest of the baby food industry must have wept with delight at articles in the Wall Street Journal last month.

    Their early Christmas present came in the form of a front page, lead news story (5 December) and an accompanying editorial in the European edition (6 December), which painted the baby food manufacturers as heroes poised to save African children from certain death.

    What was the nature of their heroism? “One major formula maker,” said the article, “Wyeth-Ayerst Laboratories Inc, says it stands ready to donate tons of free formula to HIV-infected women. No.1-ranked Nestlé SA says it too would donate, if asked.” Such donations, argued the reporters, would stop the transmission of HIV from mothers to their children via infected breast milk, halting the spread of AIDS through sub-Saharan Africa.

    All heroic tales need a villain, and this one was no exception. “Unicef,” said the paper, “refuses to greenlight the gifts, because it doesn't want to endorse an industry it has long accused of abusive practices in the Third World.”

    If there was any doubt in readers' minds about the goodies and baddies in this epic struggle for infant health, the headline hit the message home: “African Babies Fall Ill as Unicef Fights Formula Makers.” The editorial went further still, blaming Unicef's “feud against the industry” for “killing millions of children.”

    Formula fever soon spread west across the US, reaching the pages of the Houston Chronicle (December 10). Michelle Malkin, a nationally syndicated columnist, cited the Wall Street Journal report and accused Unicef's “breast feeding crusade” of “killing the children it's supposed to protect.” She also offered her advice to the agency: “There …

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