Thursday, May 14, 2015

When Breast Milk Goes Big Business

This past weekend I joined a dozen of local mothers (and fathers) for a stroll walk, raising funds and awareness for the importance of human donor milk.

Why donor milk?

Well, much has been said about the benefits of breast milk for babies. It is the feeding method recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics(AAP) and the World Health Organization(WHO). And for the 500 premature babies born each year who contract a potentially deadly disease called necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC), breast milk is more than the recommended feeding method. It can mean the difference between life and death.

NEC is an inflammation of the bowels that can require multiple surgeries to remove dead tissues, may result in organ failure, months-long neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) stays, and lifelong complications and treatment. It can cost up to $1 million to treat per case and the anguish it causes parents is indescribable.

According to Best for Babes, a non-profit organization that focuses on education and support for parents making feeding choices for their babies, feeding fragile and compromised babies human breast milk, whether from the mother or a donor, has been shown to reduce the risk of NEC by 79%.

In its most recent policy statement on breastfeeding and human milk, the AAP states unequivocally that “The potent benefits of human milk are such that all preterm infants should receive human milk…If mother’s own milk is unavailable despite significant lactation support, pasteurized donor milk should be used.”

However, the use of donor breast milk is not a common practice in American hospitals. According to NECSociety, the AAP’s call for all preterm babies to have pasteurized donor milk when mother’s own milk is unavailable is being ignored. Less than 40% of the nation’s NICUs use donor milk. “It’s a tragedy that more parents, health care providers, medical directors, and hospitals administrators don’t know about donor milk’s existence, accessibility, safety and lifesaving powers for babies in the NICU,” said Jennifer Canvasser, the founder of NECSociety, in a statement.

On the other hand, buying and selling breast milk has become popular over the past couple of years. Prolacta Bioscience, for example, has raised $46 million from investors. The company buys, pasteurizes, and resells breast milk. In hospitals, extremely premature babies are treated with the concentrated, high-protein, and super expensive formula. With its new funds, Prolacta now has the resources for research into possible new therapeutic uses for breast milk.

But I found I cannot be thrilled about the entrance of big business into what's largely been community-based, nonprofit work.

Though Prolacta’s product helps sick babies and gives breastfeeding mothers a way to earn money for their milk, it can draw donors from nonprofit milk banks with cash incentives, threatening the health of preemies whose parents lack money or insurance for the super expensive breast milk based baby formula.

Currently there are 15 milk banks nationwide that exist to provide donor breast milk to mothers who aren’t able to provide enough breast milk to their babies. These nonprofit milk banks have a long history of providing milk to the sickest babies, and provide based on medical need and not on insurance reimbursement or financial resources. And they were struggling to meet demand when breast milk went big business. Time reported that the rise of online milk selling had led to “critically low” levels of donor breast milk and “urgent calls” for donations.

Breast milk is love. Love is not for sale; it is for sharing. Mothers, if you are blessed with more breast milk than your child needs, please consider donating your milk to save another baby’s life. More information can be found at Human Milk Banking Association of North America.

Stroll walk to raise awareness for human donor milk.
This is an original post to by To-wen Tseng. Photo credit to Mu-huan Chiang. 

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