The Price of Ignorance

115 miles to the west of the Scottish mainland, there’s a tiny archipelago called St. Kilda. The main island, Hirta, is just 2.5 miles across. It is so wind-swept that nothing grows taller than a cabbage, and in a bad winter storm the waves break right over the island of Dun, which is 500 ft high. Hirta was inhabited until 1930, although the people were very poor. They scraped a living from sheep, fishing, and catching sea birds.

In the last century, the population varied between about 120 and 70, so there was never any question of having a trained doctor on the island. For most of the time, the nearest thing they had to a midwife was the knee-woman, or bean-ghluine, and outsiders were not welcome. Consequently it’s impossible to be sure exactly what the knee-woman did, but the educated guess is that when she cut the umbilical cord, she anointed it with ruby-red
oil from fulmars—one of the sea birds. Certainly anointing would appeal to such a devout people.

The oil was stored in a dried goose stomach, frequently refilled and never cleaned out. 80% of the babies died of a disease they called, “the sickness of eight days,” because that’s how long the baby lived. Today it’s known as infant tetanus, and it’s agonizing.

In 1884 the Laird’s wife paid a trained nurse to live and work on St. Kilda, and she did a great deal of bandaging cuts and sprains. But when it came to childbirth, the local women didn’t want to know. No matter what she said, the locals kept her away from child-birth, and the babies went on dying. Her successor had no better luck. When they couldn’t find another nurse willing to exile herself to St. Kilda, the Minister took a course in mid-wifery. He came back to the island with antiseptic powders and began to fight the superstition. The last infant tetanus death on St. Kilda was in 1891.

Children still die of parental ignorance. In Doncaster, UK, Mr. and Mrs. Elders weaned their little son Leroy onto baby rice. Then they found that adult breakfast cereal, Ready Brek, had the same ingredients, and was 1/6th the price. Money was short, so they gave Leroy Ready Brek instead. He loved it. In fact, he cried for more.

What the Elder’s didn’t know is that baby rice has almost no salt, because young babies can’t excrete it properly. Ready Brek, like most adult cereal, has an awful lot more. Eighteen times the recommended infant dose. Little Leroy wasn’t crying with hunger. He was almost certainly crying with thirst.

He was admitted to hospital with convulsions, where they found he had serious brain damage. The doctors tried everything they could, but five days later Leroy’s mother gave him one last cuddle as they turned the life support off. He was three months old.

Weaning babies can be tricky. Babies can also become ill if they get too little salt. There’s one simple fact though; up until about 6 months, you can’t go wrong with demand feeding. The composition of breast milk changes during the feed, from watery, thirst-quenching foremilk to fattier, more filling hindmilk. A thirsty baby has a quick drink, and a hungry one has a good guzzle. Even better, the factory adapts its product to the demand. If the baby is extra-hungry during a growth spurt, Mom starts producing more hindmilk. If the weather is hot and the baby is thirsty, Mom produces more
foremilk. A million years of evolution has this well organized. Best of all, breast milk contains the mother’s antibodies. This means the babies have a temporary immunization to whatever’s going around. Breast fed babies get fewer colds, fewer stomach upsets, and less
diaper-rash. They are less likely to be obese. They are also more intelligent (weird, but absolutely true). Even in rich countries there’s a noticeable difference. It’s a pity that modern life makes demand breastfeeding rather hard.

In the third world, it’s a tragedy. Mothers often can’t read the instructions (either because they can’t read, period, or because it’s all written in English) and don’t understand the importance of making up the feed precisely. If the family is short of money, Mom will probably make it too weak and the baby will go hungry. If they have plenty of money, she may well make it too strong, and damage the baby’s kidneys. Worse, Mom has probably never been taught much about hygiene. Even if she has, she might not have the equipment and the water may be dirty. Every bottle—six a day—might give the baby diarrhea, and the baby has no antibodies to fight it. Unicef believes about 1,500,000 babies die each year because they were needlessly bottle-fed.

Infant formula manufacturers agreed to a code of conduct 16 years ago, but they still market their products unethically. For example, they give away samples—or go one better and get the doctor to give it. The mother tries it (waste not want not). Three days later the sample runs out, the baby has gotten used to a bottle, and Mom has a lot less milk. Nobody tells her that she’ll get it back by frequent nursing. One manufacturer even gave away
glossy brochures saying that infant formula is better for babies—an outright lie.

Third world Mom’s don’t know that.

Education costs a lot of money. Ignorance might just cost you your kids.

Published in Jackhammer ezine.

© Sheila Crosby

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