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Bottle-feeding, good or bad? UN agency takes critical vote

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* Angelita Flores is a housemaid in Bogota, Colombia. Advised against breast-feeding by the local health clinic, she feeds her little Jorgito on a bottled baby formula donated by a doctor. He calls this the modern thing to do.

* Irene Dunbar lives 3,000 miles away in southern Massachusetts. After bottle-feeding her first child, she switched to mother's milk for her second baby and will settle for nothing less for her third child. She considers breast-feeding the "modern," nutritional thing to do.

The contrast between Angelita and Irene illustrates one of the odd -- and many feel tragic -- ironies of this century: Just when women in rich, industrialized countries are returning to breast-feeding as a safer and more nutritional method, mothers in many poor nations are dropping traditional breast-feeding in favor of bottle-feeding.

The World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Childrens Fund (UNICEF) see the third-world trend toward bottle-feeding as contributing to infant mortality and malnutrition. And when the WHO meets May 19 in Geneva, they will try to pass an international code of ethics to reverse the trend.

The new code, if passed, would urge governments to do far more to protect and promote breast-feeding and to take responsibility for distributing reliable information about breast-milk substitutes.

For years debate has been raging over the bottled milk vs. mothers' milk issue. Baby-food officials argue they have a useful product. Their critics say that baby-food marketing in poor countries is discouraging mothers from breast-feeding, thus compounding some already severe health problems of babies. They say that bottle-feeding often leads to pollution or over-dilution of the milk formulas.

UNICEF's executive director, James Grant, says that a million infant deaths could be prevented each year if the international community would promote natural breast-feeding.

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