Breastfeeding must be given a higher profile
The tainted milk powder scandals on the mainland have unsurprisingly led to severe shortages of baby and infant formula in Hong Kong. Our rules and enforced standards generally mean that what is sold here can be trusted as safe and genuine. This reputation for authenticity attracts many of the 48,500 or so tourists from across the border each day to our shops who, with the health of their babies at stake, buy up as many tins of formula as they can take back. The complaints from mothers and difficulties faced by retailers and suppliers are understandable, but the bigger problem is breastfeeding rates.
Mainland breastfeeding rates are rising, but still fall well below World Health Organisation targets. In Hong Kong, the level is considerably lower than on the mainland for the crucial first six months of an infant's life - 12.1 per cent compared to 21.6 per cent. Milk formula has its place for working mothers who cannot always be available to breastfeed, or women with medical issues that make breastfeeding impractical. Given the scramble for powder since the latest scare in February, it is clear that efforts on both sides of the border to ensure adequate supplies need to be stepped up.
Some popular varieties have disappeared from shelves. They have been hard to get since 2008, when the chemical melamine - used to make fabrics, glues and plastics - was first detected in milk products on the mainland. Despite inspections, recalls, arrests and court cases after six babies died and 300,000 others fell ill, the substance was found in repackaged products two months ago. The Lunar New Year holiday gave mainlanders a chance to clear out remaining stocks.
The shortages should be the signal for renewed campaigns to promote breastfeeding. The WHO says that for proper growth, development and health, all infants should be breastfed for up to six months, receiving no other food - not even water. It recommends the practice continues up to at least 24 months with the addition of safe and complementary foods. There is good reason for such advice: studies show breastfed babies are less prone to asthma, lung and ear infections, stomach viruses and diarrhoea; children up to the age of seven are less likely to get respiratory diseases; as adults, there is a higher degree of prevention of diabetes, obesity and heart and lung problems; and mothers have a considerably lower chance of developing breast and ovarian cancer and depression.
Officials recognise the benefits and have rightly signed up to the WHO's suggestions. The pledges are for the community good, but evidence points towards them not being taken seriously enough. Education efforts remain weak. Advertising campaigns by formula companies are poorly regulated. Working conditions and long hours are inconvenient for new mothers. Women worry about keeping their figures. Breastfeeding in public is often shunned.
Breastfeeding programmes are having a measure of success. Rates in Hong Kong for women who for a time try it have risen from 50 per cent in 1997 to 73 per cent in 2008. On the mainland, the increase has been spectacular - from 20 per cent in the 1980s to 70 per cent. That mothers quickly drop the practice in favour of milk powder shows that the message of the benefits is being taught at hospitals, but not being reinforced when they and their newborns go home. Breast milk contains more than 100 ingredients that the formula industry cannot duplicate. Among them are the antibodies that protect babies from illness and allow them to develop robust immune systems. In the interests of community health and well-being, breastfeeding programmes have to be boosted.