Mothers assured: Pandemic no reason to stop breastfeeding
MANILA, Philippines — While the outbreak of the new coronavirus disease (COVID-19) may have upended lives and changed everyone’s behavior, health authorities urged mothers to continue breastfeeding during the pandemic as this is crucial to their babies’ development.
In an advisory this week, the World Health Organization (WHO) said “there is no reason to avoid or stop breastfeeding” since no transmission of the coronavirus through breast milk or breastfeeding had been detected so far.
‘No transmission via milk’
Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire said there was no local evidence to show that there is vertical, or mother-to-child transmission, of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the severe respiratory disease. It remains to be mainly transmitted by an infected person through respiratory droplets, contact or fomites.
But a US study has suggested that milk from infected mothers may contain antibodies to SARS-CoV-2, which could protect babies.
“Nursing mothers who are infected with the novel coronavirus should continue to breastfeed throughout their COVID-19 illness and beyond, because [other researchers] have shown transmission does not occur via milk, and we have determined that antibodies are almost certainly there, and may protect their babies from infection,” said Rebecca Powell of The Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York.
But take precautions
According to a Reuters story, Powell, who led the study, said that her team’s report, posted on Friday on the preprint server medRxiv, has not yet been peer-reviewed or published in a medical journal.
Doctors, however, say precautions should still be taken by breastfeeding mothers.
“If you have a slight cough, fever or sore throat, it is best that you wash your hands and wear a mask. You can breastfeed but be sure to cover your mouth and nose to prevent transferring microbes to your baby,” said Dr. Anna Lisa Ong-Lim, president of Pediatric Infectious Disease Society of the Philippines.
“This is the same advice that we give to mothers even before COVID-19. Because we know that there are many diseases that can be transferred through our saliva, by coughing or sneezing,” she added.
Data from the Department of Health (DOH) show that of the 10,463 confirmed cases as of Friday, just a little over 1 percent, or 122, are children age 0 to 4. Early this month, the DOH reported its youngest recovered patient, a 16-day-old boy who was treated at the National Children’s Hospital in Quezon City.
Vergeire earlier said infants who had tested positive for the virus might have been infected after they were delivered.
Risks vs benefits
The WHO on Thursday said that even if a mother was confirmed or suspected to have the virus, skin-to-skin contact and breastfeeding could still be done immediately since their benefits outweigh the possible risks due to COVID-19.
“Immediate and continued skin-to-skin care, including kangaroo mother care, improves the temperature control of newborns and is associated with improved survival among newborn babies. Placing the newborn close to the mother also enables early initiation of breastfeeding, which also reduces mortality,” the WHO said.
“The numerous benefits of skin-to-skin contact and breastfeeding substantially outweigh the potential risks of transmission and illness associated with COVID-19,” it added.
According to the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef), it is important for infants to consume breast milk as it provides them with all the energy and nutrients they need in the first months of their life.
“Breast milk promotes sensory and cognitive development, and protects the infant against infectious and chronic diseases. Exclusive breastfeeding reduces infant mortality due to common childhood illnesses such as diarrhea or pneumonia, and helps for a quicker recovery during illness,” Unicef said.
If mom gets infected
It added that breastfeeding helps improve the overall well-being of mothers. Not only is breastfeeding a “secure way of feeding,” it also helps space children and reduce the risk of ovarian cancer and breast cancer.
For mothers who have contracted COVID-19 and are unable to breastfeed their babies, the WHO advised them to return to breastfeeding as soon as they “feel well enough to do so.”
“There is no evidence that breastfeeding changes the clinical course of COVID-19 in a mother. Health workers or breastfeeding counselors should support [mothers] to relactate,” it said.
The WHO reminded mothers not to turn to formula milk just because they fear they could infect their babies.
“There are always risks associated with giving infant formula milk to newborns and infants in all settings. The risks associated with giving infant formula milk are increased whenever home and community conditions are compromised, such as reduced access to health services if a baby becomes unwell,” it said.
—With a report from the wires
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