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Formula milk industry targets health professionals to market products

Formula milk: Using students as change agents
A local expert believes that health science students can act as agents of change to counter the marketing strategies used by formula milk companies. (Photo: Freepik)
Written by Ndivhuwo Mukwevho

Health professionals are often targeted by formula milk companies, given their strong influence on mothers and infant feeding attitudes and practices. To counter their often aggressive marketing campaigns, a local expert believes health science students can act as agents of change.

Dr Haroon Salojee, Professor of Community Pediatrics at the University of Witwatersrand (Wits), said there is an urgent need to strengthen lactation education and training. This will not only help arm mothers with the necessary knowledge but also healthcare professionals, who are the most trusted sources of education on infant feeding and nutrition.

Two-pronged approach

“I believe that two sets of activities are required. Firstly, we need to strengthen lactation education and training. Secondly, we need to use medical health science students’ advocacy to combat the industry’s influence on their education,” said Salojee.

The Wits professor was one of the speakers during last Thursday’s webinar organised by the World Health Organisation (WHO). 

“We can counter formula milk industry influence through advocacy in the medical field. Health science students are the best change agents to lead this effort, although faculties also need attention. Professionals already in clinical practice also need education opportunities,” Saloojee noted.

Health professionals targeted

A study done earlier this year by the WHO and UNICEF found that formula milk brand representatives target different types of health professionals. They include paediatricians, nurses, dieticians, and hospital administrators with various incentives like research, sales commissions, merchandise and all-expenses-paid promotional trips.  

“Health professionals have personal access to pregnant women and parents of young children. These parents often turn to them for evidence-based and impartial advice. Aware of this, formula milk companies seek to influence these professionals’ understanding of breastfeeding by convincing them of the need for formula. The professionals act as a perfect channel for marketing,” the study stated.  

“There is a lack of standardisation currently across guiding frameworks, course content, and strategies. The evidence that we have is limited and of low quality. However, training resulted in small but significant improvements in breastfeeding knowledge, attitude towards breastfeeding and demonstrations,” said Saloojee.

Developing online learning platforms

Saloojee also indicated that online learning platforms are needed.

“We must also develop an online learning platform for under-and-post graduate students in evidence-based lactation support and care. Through innovative techniques, students will be engaged, and it can be used by health science schools globally. The curriculum can include theory, skills and assessment components developed by the WHO academy and individual university paediatrics academies,” said Salojee. 

Saloojee further added that there is a shortage of skills-based training. 

“While training has a role, it exists in a wider cultural and environmental factor, influencing breastfeeding in healthcare sectors. This has to be addressed simultaneously. We need to recognise that assessment drives learning and training,” he said.

Separating marketing from support

Dr Nigel Rollins, from WHO’s Department of Maternal, Newborn, Child and Adolescent Health and Ageing, said that health professionals must separate marketing from the support they provide to women since they are two separate issues.

“There are many ways in which marketing is implicated. It works through science, health professionals, and creating brand identities. All of this is marketing,” said Rollins. 

Formula milk hits an upward curve

According to Rollins, over the past 15 years, there has been an increase in the number of infants who are using formula milk.

“Today, more children than ever are consuming formula milk in all regions. The problem is the industry’s marketing practice and not the availability of formula products in supermarkets or the choices of women or families. We are all influenced by marketing in our daily lives. Marketing of formula products is unquestionably a significant part of the story. These approaches can influence our understanding and views and can therefore wholly interrupt our patients and the industry knows this,” said Rollins.

Rollins added, “As health professionals, we all know that infant feeding is important. Essential to systems biology influences are lifelong health risks, mortality and development and impact on maternal health. There is high-quality evidence that breastfeeding gives infants and children the best health outcomes. This is true for all settings, breastfeeding is not only for low-or-middle income countries.”

The WHO and UNICEF recommend that children be exclusively breastfed for the first six months of life. – Health-e News

About the author

Ndivhuwo Mukwevho

Ndivhuwo Mukwevho is citizen journalist who is based in the Vhembe District of Limpopo province. He joined OurHealth in 2015 and his interests lie in investigative journalism and reporting the untold stories of disadvantaged rural communities. Ndivhuwo holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Media Studies from the University of Venda and he is currently a registered student with UNISA.

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