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Scaring Women Into Breastfeeding: Mention Leukemia Risk to Baby

A journalist claims that science suggests millions of kids have been put at risk by not breast-feeding, but the science says otherwise.

A recent op-ed by journalist and anthropologist Wendy Orent in the Los Angeles Times on the dangers of not breastfeeding turned out to be an astonishingly misleading feat of alarmism, largely because supposedly unequivocal science went unanalyzed and shocking percentages were not put into context.

In attempting to explain why a controversial advertisement comparing feeding children with formula and riding a bull was canned by Department of Health and Human Services, Orent accuses the formula industry and the Bush administration of quieting a well-established scientific message:

“What science the Bush administration chooses to stifle or promote seems to be a matter of politics and economics. According to a recent story in the Washington Post, the multibillion-dollar baby formula industry pressured the Department of Health and Human Services to weaken a 2004 public-service campaign promoting breast-feeding -- and it worked, even though the science supported the other side.”

However, one of the roles that the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has in promoting public health is to portray risks and benefits accurately. Orent’s article did just the opposite, advocating that women be told in the starkest terms possible that they are risking their children's lives by not breastfeeding. As STATS has noted, the science and the statistics do not support this view at all..

One notable addition to the list of ills which breast-feeding guards against, notes Orent, comes from a 400-page HHS Agency for Health Care Research and Quality study. It concludes that childhood leukemia is reduced by as much as 19 percent for breastfed babies, as compared to non-breastfed babies.

But given that there are approximately 30 leukemia cases in a million children, a 20 percent reduction due to breastfeeding avoids a risk of 1 in 150,000 that your child will develop leukemia; of these, 50 to 80% survive, depending on the type of leukemia. In other words, insisting that all women breast feed (and for more than six months) would save less than one life in 300,000.

By contrast, 1,451 children under the age of 14 died as passengers in car accidents in 2005, according to the Centers for Disease Control. This amounts to just under eight children per 300,000 kids (there are some 56 million kids under 14 in the U.S.).  Some proportion of these were either unrestrained, or in the car with a drunk driver, but even without such risky behavior, the death rate is still about two to three children per 300,000. In other words, driving safely is more than twice as risky for death than not nursing and getting leukemia as a result.

And then, if you are genuinely concerned about risk, there are the approximately 203,000 kids who were injured as passengers in 2005. Yet, it’s hard to imagine any newspaper running an op-ed warning mothers to avoid letting their child inside a car, and chastising the government for being in league with the auto industry to suppress the risk.

The art of "presenting all the information" to women who are making a decision to breastfeed or not while balancing the many deciding factors is to give them a perspective on what their decisions mean. Scare tactics are not the way to drive public policy.


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