Nearly one lakh children die every year in India due to diseases that could have been prevented through breastfeeding, according to a UN report which said mortality and other losses attributed to inadequate breastfeeding could cost the country's economy USD 14 billion.
The Global Breastfeeding Scorecard, a new report by the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) and WHO in collaboration with the Global Breastfeeding Collective, points out that breastfeeding not only helps prevent diarrhoea and pneumonia, two major causes of death in infants, it also helps reduce mothers' risk of ovarian and breast cancer, two leading causes of death among women.
In China, India, Nigeria, Mexico and Indonesia alone, inadequate breastfeeding is responsible for more than 236,000 child deaths each year.
In these countries, the estimated future economic cost of mortality and cognitive losses attributed to inadequate breastfeeding are estimated to be almost USD 119 billion per year.
The report said that despite a reported 55 per cent exclusive breastfeeding rate in children below the age of six months, the large population in India and high under five mortality means that an estimated 99,499 children die each year as a result of cases of diarrhea and pneumonia that could have been prevented through early initiation of breastfeeding, exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months, and continued breastfeeding.
Further, the high level of child mortality and growing number of deaths in women from cancers and type II diabetes attributable to inadequate breastfeeding is estimated to drain the Indian economy of USD 7 billion. Together with another $7 billion in costs related to cognitive losses, India is poised to lose an estimated USD 14 billion in its economy, or 0.70 per cent of its Gross National Income.
"Breastfeeding gives babies the best possible start in life," said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organisation (WHO).
He added that breastmilk works like a baby's first vaccine, protecting infants from potentially deadly diseases and giving them all the nourishment they need to survive and thrive.
Yet, the scorecard, which evaluated 194 nations, reveals that no country in the world fully meets recommended breastfeeding standards. It found that only 40 per cent of children younger than six months are given nothing but breastmilk and only 23 countries have exclusive breastfeeding rates above 60 per cent.
The scorecard was released at the start of World Breastfeeding Week alongside a new analysis, demonstrating that an annual investment of only USD 4.70 per newborn is required to increase the global rate of exclusive breastfeeding among children under six months to 50 per cent by 2025.
The analysis suggests that meeting this target could save the lives of 520,000 children under the age of five and potentially generate USD 300 billion in economic gains over 10 years, as a result of reduced illness and health care costs and increased productivity.
"Breastfeeding is one of the most effective and cost effective investments nations can make in the health of their youngest members and the future health of their economies and societies," said UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake.
"By failing to invest in breastfeeding, we are failing mothers and their babies and paying a double price: in lost lives and in lost opportunity."
Globally, investment in breastfeeding is far too low.
Each year, governments in lower- and middle-income countries spend approximately USD 250 million on breastfeeding promotion donors provide only an additional USD 85 million.