The novel Coronavirus cannot be passed on to babies through breast milk, says Health Minister, Dr Zweli Mkhize.
“I can assure you that COVID-19 has not been found in breast milk and research evidence has shown that the virus is not transmitted through breast milk or by giving breast milk that has been expressed from a mother who is confirmed or suspected to have COVID-19,” he said.
Speaking during the World Breastfeeding Week virtual commemoration on Tuesday, the Minister said breast milk remains the best nutrition for babies even during the COVID-19 pandemic.
He said government remains committed to improving the health of babies during the global pandemic under the theme “Support breastfeeding for a healthier South Africa”.
“We are mindful that families, mothers, caregivers and even some healthcare workers, in particular, are worried and asking many questions whether the Coronavirus can be passed on through breast milk and how can they protect themselves and their babies.”
According to Mkhize, great progress has been made in studying mothers and babies who have been affected by COVID-19 and breastfeeding in the context of COVID-19 came under the spotlight.
“Based on these studies, mothers who have been suspected as or confirmed COVID-19 positive are encouraged to continue breastfeeding while practising good respiratory hygiene,” he added.
These include wearing a mask, washing hands with soap and water, or using hand sanitiser and routinely cleaning and disinfecting surfaces.
“A baby’s immune system is not yet fully developed and requires immune protection from breast milk. This life-saving protection is more important than ever right now during the COVID-19 pandemic,” he stressed.
Benefits of breastfeeding
Nursing can protect children from many other illnesses and conditions such as diarrhoea, chest infections, diabetes and heart disease.
“Nearly half of diarrhoea episodes and one-third of respiratory infections are due to lack of breastfeeding,” he said.
Meanwhile, breastfeeding also offers children long-lasting protection against conditions such as diabetes, cancer, asthma and malnutrition.
It is not only good for the infants but has benefits for mothers too.
It can also reduce the chances of women getting breast, ovarian and endometrial cancers.
“In addition, breastfeeding facilitates bonding between baby and mom by triggering the release of large amounts of oxytocin. This is the same hormone that causes the uterus to contract thus reducing the chances of postpartum haemorrhage.
“It’s nature’s way of protecting the physical and mental wellbeing of mothers and babies in the first critical years of life.”
Weaning children too early can lead to malnutrition especially in children under five, Mkhize pointed out.
The 2016 Demographic Health Survey South Africa has an estimated 27.4% (1 in 4 children) under the age of five being stunted, or low height for age and 3% wasted or low weight for height.
“Stunting is a result of chronic undernutrition. Stunting during the first two years of life is particularly damaging and may be irreversible,” he said.
Prolonged undernutrition can also compromise a child’s physical and mental development and expose them to a higher risk of getting diseases like heart disease and diabetes in adulthood.
“Furthermore, our current levels of exclusive breastfeeding [of] 1 in 4 children (32%) is not good enough,” he said, adding that babies should be exclusively breastfed for the first six months of life.
Meanwhile, breastfeeding should begin within the first hour after birth – regardless of the mother’s HIV status, he said.
“Women must be able to feed their babies anywhere, anytime, without feeling any shame in doing so. We call on all men and women to support natural breastfeeding in any environment whether it be work, in public places, in gatherings, churches or even at home when other people enter into that space.”
Donated breast milk
The Minister said donated breast milk remains critical in managing children who cannot breastfeed for various reasons.
“The vast majority of these patients are premature babies who benefit enormously from the properties contained in breast milk.”
The Minister urged all healthcare workers to contact the nearest Breast Bank if they require breast milk for patients while also assuring them that there is adequate stock at this stage.
Meanwhile, he said the department has noted with concern of children missing their vaccination schedules for fear of visiting a facility and contracting COVID-19.
“Many of the illnesses we vaccinate against – such as measles, polio and meningitis are much more dangerous for children than COVID-19.”
He has assured parents and caregivers that health facilities have a triage mechanism whereby patients with flu-like illnesses are separated.
“This is to ensure that access to quality health care is not compromised during the COVID-19 surge.”