A recently published study in the British Medical Journal showed that major paediatric associations across the world accept funding of some kind by companies that make breast milk substitutes (BMS). The study, based on data collected from websites/Facebook pages of 114 associations recognised by the International Paediatric Association, claimed that 60 per cent of the bodies surveyed received monetary support from BMS companies. While the most common method of support was through sponsorship (53 per cent), other ways included funding for conferences and events (38 per cent); scholarships, grants and awards (9 per cent); and publications such as journals and newsletters (4 per cent).
Obviously, this allude to a conflict of interest. The purpose of these bodies is to safeguard the interests of its members and undertake activities that will ultimately improve child healthcare. Any commercial involvement can influence, say, the agenda of a conference or the theme of a research paper. This is no different than other marketing techniques to push BMS products.
So, ethically speaking, the associations should refuse funding offers by the industry. The same has also been recommended by the World Health Organization’s policy-setting body. The study, on its part, suggests that the bodies try other avenues, such as hiking membership fee or downsizing certain projects.
But this is easier said than done. The projects undertaken by the associations are more than just two-day conferences and peer-reviewed papers. They facilitate life-saving research through grants, train doctors on new innovation and help patients get access to quality healthcare. Without the kind of support afforded by the industry (again, an ethical no-no), these bodies will depend on the fee paid by members and the generosity of different donors, which may not be always enough. So, while the study did bring up some valid points, what it could have added to its recommended solutions was that associations look for funding that matches those given by corporates. Perhaps the government can step in, because after all, we are talking about the health of children here.
The author is a sub-editor at The Hindu BusinessLine