Government formula milk sold for profit

Mary-Jane Matsolo
Formula milk Melegi sold at shops in Khayelitsha. Photo by Mary-Jane Matsolo.
Mary-Jane Matsolo

Some spaza shop owners in Khayelitsha are selling Department of Health (DoH) formula milk that is marked “Not for resale”. This milk is supposed to be given free to HIV-positive mothers to give to their babies instead of breast milk.

When branch members from the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) noticed that the shops were selling formula milk they informed the TAC Khayelitsha district office. A team from the TAC office went around Khayelitsha and discovered 16 shops were selling formula milk. The brand name for the state’s formula milk is Melegi. It is manufactured by Aspen.

In August 2011 the DoH announced that exclusive breastfeeding (EBF) will be promoted throughout South Africa. All nine provinces would have to start phasing out free formula to HIV-positive mothers. But a consequence of this is that the milk is now being sold illegally because some mothers still want to use it and it is not available free anymore. Formula milk used to be distributed free in government facilities to reduce the risk of HIV-positive women passing HIV to their infants through breast milk. However, clinical trials over the last few years have shown that if women take antiretroviral treatment they can breastfeed with very little risk of passing on the virus.

The DoH declaration came about because many public health specialists are concerned that formula feeding increases the risk of diarrhea and pneumonia. These diseases kill many infants in South Africa. The World Health Organisation now recommends that HIV-positive women take antiretrovirals while breastfeeding their children instead of formula milk. However, some doctors and health activists think the new policy goes too far.

General Secretary for the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), Vuyiseka Dubula, said, “I am not a big fan of one size fit all. Women must be given a choice between breast or formula feeding especially those women who have access to clean and safe water. Exclusive breastfeeding is not easy for working mothers. Mothers also have to have undetectable viral load to reduce the risk of HIV transmission.” Dubula pointed out that if government formula milk is ending up being sold in Spaza shops there is clearly still a demand for it from mothers.

GroundUp went to see two of these shops and indeed the milk was packed neatly on the shelves. One shop owner appeared not to know that the milk was not supposed to be resold when we showed him what was written on the tin. The shop owner said that he was approached by a man who told him that the milk was a good product for him to have in his shop. The shop owner bought each tin for R30. He sells it for R35 making a R5 profit per tin.

The other shop owner was not so cooperative and threatened to assault our journalist. He tried to hide the tin and wanted to destroy the photo our journalist took of him.

The TAC held a meeting with the provincial DoH to discuss the problem of formula milk being illegally sold. The department confirmed that it was not the first time they had to deal with this issue. In the past the department conducted an investigation when there were allegations that the formula milk was being sold in Kuyasa but it found no evidence.

The DoH assured TAC that they would be conducting another investigation that would involve tracing the formula milk badge number which links the tins to which facility they were to be delivered to. The department will be meeting again with TAC to give feedback.

Shariefa Patel Abrahams, the provincial head of Primary Health Care and Programmes for Khayelitsha wrote, “We have started with preliminary information gathering and investigation. We handed all our information over to the City of Cape Town’s forensic department for further investigation.” She further explained that the problem does appear to be widespread and much larger than initially reported.

Fredalene Booysens, TAC’s Khayelitsha manager said, “We want whoever is in charge of the stock distribution fired!” She said that selling government products meant for state use is corruption. “We will have to go to clinics and door-to-door to educate people that they should not buy, but report, anyone who sells Melegi.”

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