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October 2022

Soc Sci Med. 1992 Jun; 34(11): 1277-90.

Mother's milk and pseudoscientific breastmilk testing in Pakistan.

Mull DS.

Department of Family Medicine, University of California, Irvine 92717.

In urban squatter settlements and rural villages of Pakistan, human breastmilk is regarded as a potential source of destruction as well as of nurturance. Though it is highly valued as crucial for infant survival, it is also thought susceptible to becoming tainted in many ways: by a 'shadow' from the spirit world; by 'evil eye' or black magic due to others' envy; by the effects of a new pregnancy; by the mother's illness or 'weakness'; by her exposure to excessive cold or heat; by her dietary indiscretions. In any of these circumstances, women may stop breastfeeding to prevent illness in the nursing child. Sometimes the stoppage is temporary, brief, and has no serious consequences. When the mother is pregnant, however, it is permanent. Further, if a child is sickly, cries a great deal, has prolonged diarrhea, or seems reluctant to suck, mothers frequently become alarmed and suspect irreversible breastmilk 'poisoning'. In the latter case, a folk healer has traditionally been consulted to test the milk's quality, but in recent years pathology laboratories have increasingly taken on this function in all of the major cities in Pakistan. Not only does the mother stop breastfeeding while the milk is being tested, but often she is unable or unwilling to resume nursing even if the milk is eventually pronounced safe to drink. This manifestation of inappropriate, child-endangering technology has gained acceptance partly because of maternal anxieties heightened by commercially-driven pressures to be 'modern' and partly because of its congruence with traditional ideas surrounding breastmilk, many of which have classical antecedents.

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