Did the CDC Say Mothers Shouldn’t Breastfeed to Make Vaccines More Effective?

Dubious “health” blogs seized on a small 2010 study by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to push a fake claim that the agency was advising mothers not to breastfeed.

The study titled, “The Inhibitory Effect of Breast Milk on Inactivity of Live Oral Rotavirus Vaccines” explored why vaccines are less effective among children in poor, developing countries than in middle income and industrialized countries. According to the study’s abstract:

The lower immunogenicity and efficacy of rotavirus vaccines in poor developing countries could be explained, in part, by higher titers of IgA and neutralizing activity in breast milk consumed by their infants at the time of immunization that could effectively reduce the potency of the vaccine. Strategies to overcome this negative effect, such as delaying breastfeeding at the time of immunization, should be evaluated.

While CDC researchers did take part in the study, it did not suggest that women in the U.S. should delay breastfeeding. It actually suggests that delayed breastfeeding “should be evaluated” in developing countries at the time of the child’s vaccination.

However, blogs like “healthywildandfree.com” accused the agency of ignoring “natural immunity” for the sake of money:

Did you know vaccines manufacturers make between $15-$30 billion off just one new vaccine added to the immunization schedule? If that’s not a big enough incentive to discount natural immunity, then I don’t know what is. I’m not going to sit here and bore you with theories about the efficacy and dangers of vaccines but if there is one thing we can all agree on whether anti or pro vaccine, is the stone hard fact that they are making billions off of you and your children. When someone is making a paycheck off of your health, you should always question the information they are feeding you and is there an incentive other than seeing you healthy.

In the U.S, the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) working group actually suggested that young mothers forgo immunizations — not breastfeeding — to avoid complications in their children:

Precaution: A condition in a recipient that might increase the risk for a serious adverse reaction or that might compromise the ability of the vaccine to produce immunity. Under usual circumstances, vaccination should be deferred. However, vaccination might be indicated because benefits outweigh risks.

In the context of pregnancy and breastfeeding, serious adverse reaction includes maternal, fetal or neonatal serious adverse events linked to the vaccine. Contraindication means that there is direct evidence or strong biologic plausibility and suggestive evidence that the risk of severe adverse event is elevated for at least one of these groups. Precaution means there is no supporting evidence but there is some biologic plausibility; precaution may also mean that there is a lack of data to support safety.

Dr. Joan Younger Meek, who chaired a panel on breastfeeding for the American Association of Pediatrics (AAP), publicly refuted the blog’s claim in a separate interview with the Associated Press in April 2017.

“There is no recommendation from the CDC or the AAP that mothers delay breast-feeding to enhance vaccine efficacy,” Meek told the AP. “Breast milk contains multiple immune protective factors, including whole cells which fight infection.”

For its part, the CDC encourages that all young mothers breastfeed their babies and works to increase breastfeeding rates. The CDC reports:

One of the most highly effective preventive measures a mother can take to protect the health of her infant is to breastfeed. However, in the United States, although most mothers hope to breastfeed, and 79% of babies start out being breastfed, only 19% are exclusively breastfed 6 months later. Additionally, rates are significantly lower for African-American infants.

The success rate among mothers who want to breastfeed can be greatly improved through active support from their families, friends, communities, clinicians, health care leaders, employers, and policymakers. Given the importance of breastfeeding for the health and wellbeing of mothers and children, it is critical that we take action across the country to support breastfeeding.

And “deferred breastfeeding” is a very small portion of global efforts to increase the effectiveness of vaccines in developing countries. One of the biggest hurdles is that vaccines must be kept cold to remain effective, yet children live in remote areas with limited access to electricity and refrigeration, so vaccines often spoil, the humanitarian group Deutsche Welle reports:

Health workers have to keep vaccines cool at all times – from the moment of their production until they are administered by injection or in other ways.

“This is one of the reasons why we’re still unable to vaccinate many children against diseases, which have been wiped out in developed countries – polio, for example,” says Sebastian Dietrich, a physician working with Doctors without Borders. “We just can’t get the vaccines to very remote areas while keeping them cool.”

When Doctors Without Borders vaccinates people in developing countries, they face serious challenges, says Dietrich.

Most sensitive vaccines solutions become unusable as soon as their temperature rises above eight degrees Celsius.

Dietrich and his colleagues have to get the vaccines through customs before they go bad, and they have to find storage rooms with good refrigeration, or transport the vaccines by car to remote areas, where there may not even be electricity.

Deutsche Welle concluded that developing nanovaccines that don’t need refrigeration is the key to increasing effectiveness — not delayed breastfeeding.

Update 5/14/21, 10:47am: This article has been revamped and updated. You can review the original here.