Baby formula risk for IDPs

At a relief camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Lahore, capital of Pakistan’s eastern Punjab Province, donations are coming in. “The response remains good,” Ijaz Ahmed, a volunteer at the camp set up by local traders, told IRIN.

Among the tins of cooking oil, stacks of bedding and sacks of wheat flour are several cartons containing infant milk formula, but Ahmed appears confused when told that formula, when mixed with unsafe water, can cause diarrhoea in infants.

Some formula has reached IDPs. Several local and international websites, seeking relief goods, included it as a requirement for the over two million IDPs displaced by the conflict between militants and government forces in northwestern Pakistan.

Formula has also been donated by private organizations and groups who rushed to help when the displacements began in early May.

“A teacher asked us to bring formula for the babies,” Sidra Azam, 13, a schoolgirl in Lahore who has been helping collect donations for IDPs at her school, told IRIN.

“I gave formula for a week to my one month-old-baby son. I thought it would make him strong. But I stopped after a lady doctor told me he could get very sick,” said Zahida Bibi, 22, now based with relatives in Lahore. She had initially gone to the Jalala camp in Mardan District, North West Frontier Province (NWFP), after fleeing her village near Mingora, the main town in NWFP’s embattled Swat District.


There has been concern about donations of the baby milk by companies. The Islamabad-based NGO The Network for Consumer Protection (The Network) claimed formula milk had been distributed in camps, in violation of the International Code and Pakistan’s own laws.

Rubina Bhatti, project coordinator for The Network, told IRIN: “Despite laws to promote breastfeeding, companies continue unethical practices.” 

[Note to readers: The original article made an erroneous claim, contained in a quote by an aid official, that Lactogen 1 milk powder had been donated and marketed in IDP camps, *by the manufacturer*. This is strongly denied by the manufacturer. IRIN apologizes for the reporting error.]

A meeting of the National Alliance for the Promotion of Breastfeeding was held at the end of May in Islamabad, with UNICEF support, to discuss the issue. Decisions taken included an agreement to raise awareness about the need to promote breastfeeding.

“In an emergency situation breastfeeding is particularly important. A mother’s milk contains antibodies that can protect infants against disease. This is very valuable when they are living in conditions where sanitation is poor, making them vulnerable to sickness,” Shereen said.

Hazards of formula feeding

The lack of access to safe water, and to utensils and fuel to boil it, adds to the hazards of formula feeding, Shereen said, adding: “Women often just mix the formula with ordinary water, which is often contaminated, and bacteria flourish when this happens.”

Asiya Shiraz, a Peshawar-based paediatrician who has volunteered at IDP camps in NWFP, said that displaced women from remote areas had never seen formula before. “In the camps, some of those who received donations of formula thought these would be beneficial for their babies,” Shiraz said.

“We had never seen powdered baby milk before. My husband said it would be good for our baby, who is three months old. I had no idea how to mix it, so I just added tap water to a few spoons of the powder, as advised by some other women,” said Naheed Bibi, from Buner, based with a host family in Peshawar. She received some infant milk as part of parcels distributed from a relief camp in the city.

“UNICEF is actively promoting breastfeeding to avoid such risks and working to make mothers aware it is best for their babies, with the right mix of nutrients for them,” Shereen said.


*Updated and corrected 2 September 2009