Unicef Is Fighting Aids In 161 Nations

Posted: December 20, 2000

Michelle Malkin's column (Dec. 14) presents an agonizingly complex situation in a dangerously simplistic manner and is appalling in its omission of fact.

Incredibly, she charges that UNICEF is doing little to prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV in Africa, instead spending most of its time holding a grudge against the infant formula industry, conducting a "homicidal mission" and advancing a breast-feeding "crusade."

Malkin based her column on an incomplete set of facts in the Wall Street Journal and did not bother to contact UNICEF for a response.

The facts:

UNICEF does provide free infant formula to HIV-positive women who need it and want it.

Two years ago, working with governments, local groups, UNAIDS and WHO, UNICEF launched projects in 11 countries where AIDS is most serious.

These projects are solely focused on preventing mother-to-child transmission of AIDS. They provide voluntary and confidential HIV testing; drugs that help prevent HIV transmission; counseling on feeding options; and, for HIV-positive mothers who choose it, a free and steady supply of infant formula, along with instruction in preparing it safely. UNICEF acquires the formula needed for these women by purchasing it - the very same way it purchases vaccines for children.

The key to preventing mother-to-child transmission of HIV is knowing which mothers are HIV-positive. Less than 5 percent of adults in sub-Saharan Africa know their HIV status.

The first crucial step is to make it possible for all people to access voluntary and confidential testing and counseling. That's what UNICEF's projects do. Voluntary and confidential testing not only enables us to help those who are HIV-positive; it also supports those who are HIV-negative to stay that way. Malkin omitted all this.

UNICEF does not encourage all mothers in high-risk HIV areas to simply use commercial formula because for women who do not have HIV, breastfeeding is far safer for their infants than formula feeding. Malkin did not identify the well-documented dangers of formula use in the developing world, where the vast majority of women are HIV-free.

An extensive body of scientific research in the developing world shows that children who are formula-fed are four to six times more likely to die of infectious diseases than children who are breast-fed (This is in part because formula must be mixed with potentially contaminated water and because it does not build the immune system as well as breast milk. Unsafe drinking water wreaks disaster for children in the developing world - carrying diseases that cause diarrheal dehydration, one of the top five killers of children.) The World Health Organization estimates that breastfeeding can save the lives of 1.5 million children every year - far more than are threatened by HIV transmission through breast milk.

We respond to the outrageous claim of an "anti-corporate" atmosphere. With a bare minimum of fact-checking, Malkin would have learned that UNICEF is widely recognized as having excellent relationships with corporations. In two years alone, UNICEF has received more than $200 million in cash and in-kind donations from the private sector. Many outstanding companies have supported UNICEF both for its mission and its unflinching resolve to put children's needs ahead of outside interests or pressure.

UNICEF is only too aware of the enormous and horrific challenges presented by the HIV pandemic. Our staff in 161 countries is fully invested in intensive efforts to provide AIDS education, protect children orphaned by AIDS and prevent the transmission of AIDS from mother to child.

Charles Lyons is president of the U.S. Fund for UNICEF

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