12 Nov 1997 Is UNICEF Aiding AIDS? by Kevin Pritchett
for Public Policy Research, 501 Capitol Court, N.E., Washington, D.C. 20002,
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Whether media tycoon Ted Turner’s recent $1 billion pledge to the United Nations is altruistic or just a stunt is not yet clear. What is certain, however, is that he won’t be getting his money’s worth or saving humanity.
If Mr. Turner had performed the same due diligence as he surely does on his business investments, he would have found that most UN agencies, especially the United Nations Children’s Education Fund (UNICEF), are deadly sinkholes. More tragically, he would see that UNICEF’s particular political agenda is actually fueling the raging AIDS epidemic in Africa.
UNICEF enjoys a reputation of being one of the few “decent” UN organizations. Founded (in the aftermath of World War II) as the international relief, its mission has been to provide humanitarian aid to children worldwide. Its image as an effective and apolitical agency is misleading, since it abandoned its relief role in favor of a gauzy, undefined political mission many years ago.
This political mission has included UNICEF’s twenty-year crusade promoting breast-feeding of babies over bottle-feeding. UNICEF’s crusade is, in part, medically sound since most experts in the field would agree that breast-feeding babies is best. This would be especially true in the Third World, where unsanitary conditions prevail.
Since 1985, however, scientists have known that the HIV virus can be passed from mother to child through breast milk. Still, UNICEF continues to urge even HIV-infected mothers to breast-feed their infants, arguing that the risks are small and are outnumbered by the health benefits of breast milk.
UNICEF’s fatal vision has created a calamity for Africa’s children. There is growing anger in the international medical and public health communities over what some call UNICEF’s “breast-feeding ideology” in the Third World, the results of which can be seen in infant death tolls. According to the World AIDS Campaign, “Every day, 1,000 children become infected with HIV. If the spread of HIV is not contained, AIDS may soon increase infant mortality by as much as 75%, and under-five mortality by more than 100% in regions most affected by the disease.”
In South Africa, these statistics are playing out. Research by Dr. Glenda Gray at the Baragwanath Hospital in Johannesburg, South Africa suggest that breast-feeding increased the risk of HIV transfer from mother to child by 28% — far higher than previous studies. A recent newswire story reported that at the current weekly AIDS death rate of 500, Zimbabwe is said to be losing its breast-feeding campaign due to pandemic. The country is projected to have 600,000 orphans by the year 2000, among them babies needing breast-feeding substitutes… It is estimated that 25 to 50% of babies who escape HIV infection at birth are likely to contract it through breast milk.” These stories are repeated across Africa.
What should be done? More importantly, what has UNICEF — the world’s relief agency for children — done? Obviously, sanitation education, widespread HIV testing and access to inexpensive infant bottle formula would be key to halting the spread of AIDS among children. The New York Times reported that the government of Thailand, which has had similar AIDS problems, now offer free supplies to HIV-infected mothers so they can bottle-feed their babies. Doctors in Thailand hope the program will “reduce the cases of mother-to-child HIV transmission by 20%.”
In the face of mounting public outrage, however, UNICEF, the World Health Organization and UNAIDS still refuse to change their policy. They recently cobbled together an “interim statement” which states: “As a general principle, in all populations, irrespective of HIV infection rates, breast-feeding should continue to be protected, promoted and supported (emphases added).” This is chilling.
UNICEF’s stance has clearly changed from sound advice to deadly dogma. Breast-feeding in the First World is usually safe, but that is definitely not the case in the AIDS-ravaged Third World. To impose this carelesss attitude on those hapless mothers borders on genocide.
Regardless of Mr. Turner’s interest, the U.S. Congress should consider UNICEF reform. By its own account, UNICEF currently spends twice as much on “planning, advocacy and program support” than it does on water sanitation. The estimated $346 million UNICEF spends annually on travel, consultants, expensive offices and other luxuries could be put to better use–education, AIDS testing and bottle-feeding supplies.
(Kevin Pritchett, a public policy specialist, is a member of the African-American leadership group Project 21.)