Answering the Call: Black Surgeon Generals All Promote Breastfeeding
Reflecting on Black History Month, we have a tendency to hear stories about the Rosa Parks, Mahalia Jackson, Jackie Robinson-type icons who broke through color barriers to lay the foundation of a better future for people of color. As a doctoral student studying public health, I am proud that in the past decades we have three Black Surgeon Generals for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, who’ve all taken a stand for breastfeeding. (FYI: You are probably familiar with the Surgeon General’s warning on side of the cigarette packages. For more information on what Surgeon Generals do, read this article: http://getbetterhealth.com/what-does-the-surgeon-general-do/2009.01.07)
Dr. Joycelyn Elders was the first Black U.S. Surgeon General, receiving the appointment from President Clinton for 1993-1994. In 1994, Elders endorsed UNICEF’s global breast-feeding initiative campaign. She stated, "There is no nutrition better than mother's milk," and encouraged health care providers to increase breastfeeding rates in the U.S by educating women about the benefits of breastfeeding and cease their reliance on infant formula.
Dr. David Satcher was the 16th U.S. Surgeon General during 1998-2002. He has a plethora of credentials and awards, including “top awards from the American Medical Association, the American College of Physicians, the American Academy of Family Physicians, and Ebony magazine.” In 2000, his office along with the Office on Women’s Health and other Federal agencies and health care professional organizations published the HHS Blueprint for Action on Breastfeeding, outlining breastfeeding recommendations and promotion steps based on scientific research. According to Satcher at a La Leche League International conference in 2001, “We cannot afford to wait until a person is in [her] senior years to focus in on increasing quality and longevity. We have to begin our emphases as early in lifespan as possible, which is why breastfeeding is so important…Right now we’re concerned that not enough [education] is going on.”
Our current Surgeon General, Dr. Regina Benjamin, has continued to echo the importance of breastfeeding. Her office recently released the The Surgeon General’s Call to Action to Support Breastfeeding. Although I encourage every breastfeeding advocate to obtain a copy of this document and read it in its entirety, to illustrate Benjamin’s support of breastfeeding I want to share this comment from her foreword:,
“I have issued this Call to Action because the time has come to set forth the important roles and responsibilities of clinicians, employers, communities, researchers, and government leaders and to urge us all to take on a commitment to enable mothers to meet their personal goals for breastfeeding. Mothers are acutely aware of and devoted to their responsibilities when it comes to feeding their children, but the responsibilities of others must be identified so that all mothers can obtain the information, help, and support they deserve when they breastfeed their infants. Identifying the support systems that are needed to help mothers meet their personal breastfeeding goals will allow them to stop feeling guilty and alone when problems with breastfeeding arise. “
In terms of Black History, many cite the slavery practice of wet-nursing as one reason African-American breastfeeding rates are dismal, in comparison to the rates in Black communities in Latin America, the Caribbean, the U.K. and the continent of Africa. However, these three leaders made it a priority to address this racial disparity in our community, and I feel we should answer their call and do the same.