JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — For the past few years, the slogan “Breast is Best” has been circulating in the United States. Mothers are being educated that breast milk is the best choice for both mom and baby for as long as she is able to nurse.
But what about orphaned babies or ones whose mothers have HIV? Is breast milk still the best choice? Yes, it is. In order to give those babies the opportunity to have the same life sustaining benefits of breast milk, South Africa, in particular, has a network of breast milk banks set up to nourish every baby in need.
South Africa experiences a high rate of mothers with HIV and babies that are orphaned. With the country’s lower breast feeding numbers than western countries, it has become vital to create breast milk banks.
Women who donate to the banks are screened much in the same way that a blood bank will screen donors and are all unpaid volunteer donors. After the lifestyle screening, the donor is given sterile containers and instructions on how to safely express and then save the milk. Once a certain amount have been saved, usually frozen, the milk can be shipped to the banks.
Before given to the babies, the milk is pasteurized. Even though each donor has been screened, pasteurization is an additional step to ensure that no illnesses, such as HIV, hepatitis or syphilis, inadvertently is transmitted to the baby. Even though pasteurization is needed, the process does “remove[…] many of the good qualities of breast milk, [but]the milk is still beneficial and ‘better than no breast milk’” (UNICEF).
The four breast milk banks listed below are a sampling of the life-saving work that is being done in South Africa, and all four carry out their work in a similar fashion.
1. iThemba Lethu, which means “I have a destiny,” is a non-profit in Durban, South Africa and has been in operation since 2001. The organization is multi-faceted, but a breast milk bank is a large branch of their work. They receive milk donations from local mothers as well as from abroad, including the U.K. and the U.S. Their focus is on helping orphaned and abandoned children whose birth mothers typically have HIV. Their breast milk bank also supports preemie babies whose mothers may not have a milk supply due to a traumatic birth.
2. The South African Breastmilk Reserve (SABR) is a non-profit that has been in operation since 2003 and aims to increase the number of breast feeding mothers in South Africa. They are a very large organization with 44 milk banks that supply from 75 to 100 hospitals per year. They operate with two goals: give babies the life-saving power of donated breast milk and educate women about the benefits of breast feeding.
3. The Human Milk Banking Association of South Africa (HMBASA) is also a non-profit “that co-ordinates and provides guidance for human milk banking centres throughout South Africa.” They have similar goals to provide breast milk to orphans, babies whose mothers have HIV and preemies whose mothers might not be able to supply their own milk. What is unique about HMBASA is how they partner with several smaller organizations, such as iThemba Lethu, to help with general breast feeding education, but they also provide education and practical help to healthcare professionals on how to properly pasteurize and the like. The partnerships help save even more babies.
4. The International Breast Milk Project (IBMP), or Give Milk, is a non-profit that gives the gift of milk to multiple banks across the world. Their outreach program does three main things: give donor milk to Africa (specifically South Africa), support local milk banks in Africa and give emergency relief milk after a disaster such as to the Philippines after the typhoon and Haiti after the earthquake. IBMP also gives donor milk to many banks across the United States. Their work aims to give short term relief to those babies who need donated milk as well as to give funding to help create a long-term sustainable solution of local milk banks in the places that they work.
These organizations, and so many more like them, are not only saying that “breast is best” but giving the gift of breast milk to those children most in need. All the organizations cite multiple success stories of babies who were saved through breast milk donation. Breast milk is most vital for the youngest babies, but health is improving in the older ones as well. Mothers are saving lives through their life-sustaining milk.
– Megan Ivy