We are all aware of the blood-banks created mostly by voluntary blood donations. Less known is that there now exists milk-banks to address the critical issue of lack of mothers’ milk for newborns. Breast milk, described as ‘superfood’ for newborns, contains “bioactive components” which protect them against life-threatening illnesses, serious infections and other complications related to pre-term birth which commercially available formula milk can’t say doctors. The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends that the best option for a baby who cannot be breastfed is milk expressed from its own or from another healthy mother. Children who are fed mother’s milk are also less vulnerable to certain non-communicable diseases. According to the WHO and UNICEF, globally only 20 per cent of working women are able to breast feed their children – a must for at least for one to one-and-a-half years after birth. A study has indicated that babies not breastfed fall ill more often and have extra days of hospitalisation as well as extra prescriptions in the first year of their lives.
India, a nation of 1.25 billion people, has the world’s highest number of low birth weight babies, with a critically high Neo-natal Mortality Rate (NMR) rate described as deaths in the period of 0-28 days per thousand live births. India witnessed 28 deaths per 1,000 live births in 2013 and an Infant Mortality Rate (IMR) of 40 in the age 0-1 year per thousand live births according to the Annual Report of India’s Ministry of Health and Family Welfare. Of the 26 million babies born in India every year, one million babies are blighted before they reach the age of one month. Despite reducing child mortality – from 2.3 million deaths of children under the age of five in 2001 to 1.4 million in 2012 – India still accounts for 20 percent of infant mortality globally. Many of these needless tragedies can be avoided, say doctors, if the little ones are nourished with mother’s milk.
“Feeding these babies with donor breast milk through milk banks can have the single largest impact on reducing child mortality,” says Bhavdeep Singh, CEO, Fortis Healthcare, a pan-India hospital chain which launched Amaara in collaboration with the Breast Milk Foundation.
Donor banks collect, screen, process, store and prescribe donated human milk to babies who need such milk donated by lactating mothers not biologically related to them. The milk is either extracted manually or with breast pumps and collected by trained staff in labelled and sterile containers. It is transported to the banks under cold storage conditions and immediately frozen at 20 degrees centigrade, after which a sample is taken for its culture. If the bacterial culture is negative, then the milk is pasteurized for future use. Who can donate milk? Healthy lactating moms of term or preterm babies who are not on any medications, and have had no significant illnesses in the past or present, can do so. However, it is only the excess milk (milk obtained after fully feeding the donor’s own child) that can be donated.
In India, only 14 such banks currently exist, as per the Indian Academy of Paediatrics. This compares poorly to other developing nations like Brazil. Brazil hosts 210 such banks which have helped reduce its malnutrition level by 73 per cent. Experts attribute the paucity of this service to a lack of public awareness and promotion of formula milk by the industry.