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Taking a stand

Recently I had the pleasure of seeing Syed Aamir Raza once again. Aamir used to work for Nestle, the world's largest food company and the target of an international boycott because of its aggressive marketing of baby milk.

Aamir had been a Medical Delegate for Nestle in Pakistan, responsible for a circuit of 200 doctors to whom he presented company products. He was good at his job, congratulated for hitting sales targets and earning his bonuses. Then one day while he was visiting one of the few doctors who refused to accept the gifts on offer from the company there was a medical emergency. The doctor explained to Aamir that a four month-old child had just died as a result of dehydration and malnutrition. “What caused it?” Aamir asked. “People like you,” was the shocking reply.

After being breastfed for a month, the baby's doctor had advised the parents to use formula. Aamir's own wife was eight months pregnant and his son just two-and-a-half years old; he well understood the suffering of the parents. He resigned his job and embarked on a course of denouncing the company and leaving Pakistan in order to publicise a report of his experiences. When threats were made by doctors implicated in his evidence and shots fired at his house in Pakistan he realised it was unsafe to return home and his wife and children went into hiding.

Refusing to be silenced

Six years on and Aamir has finally been granted residency in Canada, the last country on his report-launch tour, and was able to visit me in England. He is still to be reunited with his family, which he has not seen in all this time.

Aamir is a true hero, thrust into exceptional circumstances by an act of conscience and a refusal to be silenced by legal and personal threats from his former employers at Nestle. He met the Director General of the World Health Organisation and the Minister of Health of Pakistan to present his evidence, while Nestle accused him of being a blackmailer and a liar. Legislation for the marketing of breast milk substitutes was introduced in Pakistan as a direct result of Aamir's campaign. It is not the strongest law amongst the seventy plus examples in the world, but a vital first step to protect infant health.

Aamir's evidence provides a window on what goes on inside baby food companies, which proclaim to support breastfeeding, but systematically violate the International Code of Marketing of Breast milk Substitutes adopted by the World Health Assembly 25 years ago.

Pressure for change

My organisation, Baby Milk Action, works as part of the International Baby Food Action Network (IBFAN) to monitor the industry, and we see the output of the company systems, the free supplies, the targeting of mothers with baby clubs, telephone “carelines”, advertising and stands in supermarkets, plus gifts to health workers, promotional leaflets and posters and idealising and unscientific claims for products.

IBFAN's monitoring reports are used to expose malpractice, to encourage governments to introduce legislation, and by the ethical investment sector.

Monitoring shows that Aamir's former employers, Nestle, continue to be responsible for more violations of the Code and subsequent Resolutions than any other company. For this reason it is targeted with a boycott launched by groups in 20 countries. The boycott keeps the issue in the public eye - as in the coverage of the recent takeover of Body Shop by Nestle, L'Oreal - and the pressure on Nestle. This pressure helps us to stop some of the malpractice and has forced some policy changes from Nestle, though it still has much to do and has yet to accept our four-point plan aimed at saving infant lives and ending the boycott.

Power to act

Not all of us find ourselves in the same situation as Aamir, where taking a stand involved years of sacrifice. But we all have the power to act.

You can avoid Nestle products, become a Baby Milk Action member, or send a donation. You too can help to save infant lives.

Baby Milk Action, 34 Trumpington Street, Cambridge, CB2 1QY (01223 464420; http://www.babymilkaction.org )