Viewpoint

Ducking a prophet’s lament

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We goofed, Sen. Francis Escudero admitted. Legislators dozed when a libel proviso was sneaked into the Cybercrime Prevention Act. Escudero, who filed a bill to decriminalize libel, wants the controversial Section 4C (4) scrapped.

Sen. Pia Cayetano focused on the bill’s sanctions on crimes against children on the Net. Thus, she overlooked a rider that Sen. Vicente Sotto III denies inserting. It’d impose excessive criminal penalties for libel on the Internet.

Others, who also didn’t spot the legal booby trap, backpedaled in the backlash. The discomfort level is high. “Who hinders not a mischief is guilty of it,” an old proverb says.

The Supreme Court may consolidate five challenges claiming the rider is unconstitutional. It infringes on the freedom of expression and privacy of communication, asserts Sen. Teofisto Guingona III, who cast the only “nay” vote. “It’s a throwback to the Dark Age.”

“Once burned, twice shy.” So, how do we ensure we’re not conned again?

Heed early warning signals for a start. Tomorrow’s controversy could swirl around an innocent-sounding bill titled: “An Act Promoting a Comprehensive Program on Breastfeeding Practices and Regulating the Trade, Marketing, and Promotions of Certain Foods for Infants and Children.”

This would, in fact, gut the Milk Code (Executive Order 51) and “Expanded Breastfeeding Promotion Act.” Both improved child health and survival, note the Philippine Medical Association, the Academy of Family Physicians, the Obstetrical and Gynecological Society, and the Perinatal Association.

“Breastfeeding is the single most cost-effective intervention,” their position paper asserts. Should the above-mentioned bill become law, it would subject infants and children to risk from diarrhea, pneumonia or “even death.” About 16,000 young Filipino children die yearly because of “suboptimal breastfeeding and inappropriate complementary feeding practices,” the World Health Organization estimates.

The 2008 National Demographic Health Survey (NDHS) found that only three out of 10 mothers breastfeed. This has now risen to over 51 percent. Next year’s NDHS could confirm a further upswing.

Such gains would be wiped out, cautions Nutrition Center of the Philippines’ Dr. Florentino Solon. If mothers (a) fail to initiate or (b) cease breastfeeding in the first six months of an infant’s life, “diarrhea-related mortality” bolts eight to 10 percent. “Breastfeeding is a major determinant of stunting among children aged six months of age,” studies show. Weight gain in an infant’s first two years of life is associated with better school outcomes.

“In 60 years of work in public health and nutrition, I’ve seen how milk company marketing undermined infant nutrition in many countries,” Solon adds. Milk donations seem harmless. But “scientific evidence shows (they) can increase diarrhea six-fold. This is the experience of other developing countries. We need not repeat their experience.”

Indeed, it is vital to “protect, promote, and support exclusive breastfeeding for six months and continued breastfeeding up to two years or beyond,” states the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef).

Don’t loosen age restrictions that the Milk Code pegs at 0-36 months, the position paper urges. Maintain the provision in the Expanded Breastfeeding Promotion Act that entitles mothers to compensable breaks to breastfeed.

Exclude milk companies from policymaking bodies for the promotion of breastfeeding. This is patent conflict of interest. Milk firms seek to increase sales which decrease breastfeeding rates. Prohibit advertising, promotion, sponsorships, and marketing of materials and activities for breast milk substitutes.

Watering down current laws will reopen the floodgates to once-prohibited advertising. These will confuse pregnant and lactating mothers. Children are more likely to be given milk formula if mothers recalled advertising messages; or if a doctor or a relative recommended it, a survey shows. Those fed with milk formula are six times more likely to stop breastfeeding before the age of 12 months.

Reject offers from milk and infant feeding-related industries. At all times, including calamities. It is a myth that such donations are essential. In post-Storm “Sendong” evacuation centers, fewer than one out of 100 infants in Iligan and five out of 100 in Cagayan de Oro were exclusively formula-fed.

Ban distribution of samples of breast milk substitutes in the health care system. That sends conflicting messages that subtly accord donor companies and their products with “undue respect”—while undermining the benefits of breastfeeding. “Current efforts at amending the existing Milk Code serve only the interests of the multinational milk and infant-feeding industry.”

The position paper urges legislators to rethink their proposal. Instead, “be co-advocates in the promotion of good health for our infants and young Filipino children…. The common good, especially of the young who cannot speak for themselves, must always be upheld over business—and self-interests.”

Unlike the Internet libel con game, there is time to heed the counsel of health professionals and safeguard the kids. That would avert another Massacre of the Innocents.

We’d then be spared the prophet Jeremiah’s lament: “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.”

(Email: juan_mercado77@yahoo.com )

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