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Health And Welfare

Save babies’ lives, one milk drop at a time

Human milk banking week is observed from 01 – 07 March every year and promotes the establishment, support, and continuous operation of human milk banks at hospitals with neo-natal units.

 

The Western Cape Department of Health and Wellness is calling on all healthy lactating women to consider becoming milk donors to potentially save the lives of many babies across the province.

What is a human milk bank?

A human milk bank collects breast milk from mothers who have more than their babies need. They then screen, pasteurise, and test it, and, finally, dispense it to premature and fragile infants in need, either in hospitals or places of safety. 

 

Why are human milk banks important?

According to the South African Breastmilk Reserve, in South Africa alone, 8 in 100 babies are born prematurely and 11 000 premature babies die from preventable infections and complications every year. Milk that is donated from healthy breastfeeding mothers will help premature or sick infants in need. Jenny Wright of Milk Matters says that donor milk is not only a lifeline for the recipient babies, but it is also a bridge to breastfeeding, with the health benefits that brings for both mother and baby.

As supported by the World Health Organisation and UNICEF, donated breastmilk from safe and affordable milk banking facilities best first alternative where mother’s own milk is not available.

 

What are the benefits of donated expressed breast milk for premature babies?

To save the lives of the most vulnerable babies. Breastmilk is the perfect first “food”. Babies are born with immature immune systems, and breastmilk which is rich in antibodies and immune factors helps to “speed” up the development of their immune systems.

Dr Mary Fischer, general practitioner at the Neo-natal unit at Paarl Hospital explains that feeding formula milk to premature babies can have serious and often deadly side effects as opposed to the mother’s own milk or donated expressed breastmilk. “Mothers of premature babies often have difficulty with getting milk production established. Donated breastmilk is then administered to premature babies to feed them during the first days of their life. Once the mother’s milk supply is established, donated breast milk can be given to other babies who need it.”

Dr Fischer says that premature babies’ intestines are usually not well developed yet and that formula milk can cause infections of the intestines. Since the babies also haven’t established a viable immune system, these infections may be deadly to premature babies. “Breast milk not only contains ingredients that are easily digestible for babies, but it also contains lifesaving antibodies and immune factors that can help the body fight off infections and illnesses.”

 

Who can donate expressed breast milk?

Healthy, lactating mothers who:

  • Has more breast milk than her own baby needs
  • Has not received a blood transfusion in the last 3 months,
  • Does not smoke or use illegal or recreational drugs.
  • Does not regularly consume alcohol,
  • Is not taking any medication, supplements, or traditional medicines that can affect breast milk donations negatively.

Most lactating mothers will also confirm from own experience that healthy lifestyle habits, including a balanced diet and consuming enough fluids will also contribute to adequate milk production. Breastfeeding or expressing regularly remain the most important ways to stimulate and maintain milk production. Proper access to a storage facility for breastmilk before it’s being donated is also another important factor for donors to consider as this ensures that the donation is safe for consumption.

 

Who should not donate expressed breast milk?

Amongst others, women who:

  • Smoke or use tobacco or nicotine products.
  • Use illegal or recreational drugs, including cannabis.
  • Are taking medications, supplements, herbal or traditional medicines, unless specifically approved by the milk bank.
  • Are at risk of contracting a sexually transmitted disease.

 

How can milk be donated?

Potential donors can contact a government hospital with operational milk banks directly or can contact Milk Matters to inform them of their willingness to donate. Donors will then be screened by completing a short questionnaire to establish if they meet the lifestyle-related criteria (listed above) and will then have to provide a blood sample. The blood sample will be tested for HIV, Hepatitis B and Syphilis. Blood testing is done at no cost to the donor.

Once the blood tests confirms that that donor tested negative for these 3 diseases, the donor will be added to the facility’s donor registry. Donors can then deliver their donation to the facility at their own convenience. The milk will then  be pasteurised, and samples will be collected for microbial testing. Pasteurised and tested milk that is deemed safe for consumption will then be dispensed to vulnerable premature babies in the hospitals’ neonatal units.

While any amount of breastmilk donation is welcomed, regular and continuous donations from longer term donors makes administration and costs easier to manage.

 

Are there any advantages for milk donors?

Legally human milk banks are not allowed to compensate donor mothers, as breastmilk is considered a human tissue in South Africa. Breastmilk, like blood, is donated as a charitable exercise to save the lives of premature babies and not for financial gain.

However, the act of donating a lifesaving product can instil a great sense of purpose. Especially lactating mothers who have an oversupply of milk can benefit from the selfless act of donation. “Some mothers have an oversupply of milk that would otherwise be wasted, but by donating it the discomfort, pain and effort associated with overproduction can actually be lifesaving to the recipients of donated breastmilk,” says Dr Fischer.

Regular expressions of breast milk can also help mothers with a lower or diminishing supply to stimulate production and by donating milk not used by the baby more tummies are fed and lives are saved.

 

What can non-lactating persons do to promote human milk donations?

By supporting and encouraging lactating mothers to donate their milk, non-lactating persons can do their part in promoting human milk donations. Awareness and promotion of the benefits of breastfeeding in general can also be supported by anyone and will make a difference in normalising breastfeeding and breastmilk donation. This can be achieved by supporting organisations like Milk Matters.

 

Where can I get more information regarding human milk banks in the Western Cape?

Potential donors can contact Milk Matters at 021 659 5599 or info@milkmatters.org for more information or to sign up to become a milk donor. To make it more convenient for donors, there are 25 Milk Matters depots, where donors can collect sterile containers or drop off batches of frozen breastmilk once they have completed the screening process. Visit the Milk Matters website at Milkmatters.org for more information on donation and breastfeeding in general.

Alternatively, State hospitals that run their own milk banks are George Hospital, Groote Schuur Hospital, Tygerberg Hospital, Paarl Hospital and Oudtshoorn Hospital. Any potential donors who are based close to these hospitals can contact the facility directly. Visit westerncape.gov.za for contact details of health facilities.

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