Breast Milk Banks Are Coming to the Rescue for Babies in Need

Nursing mothers in South Africa can now donate extra breast milk in an effort to reduce the country’s high infant mortality rate.

(Photo: Courtesy

Aug 3, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Amber Dance is a freelance writer based in Southern California. She has contributed to publications including the Los Angeles Times, The Scientist, and PNAS Front Matter.

South Africa’s most vulnerable newborns will soon be sipping their way to better health.

KwaZulu-Natal, the nation’s poorest province, is setting up milk banks so nursing mothers can donate extra breast milk to orphans in need or infants whose mothers are too ill to breast-feed. Even a couple of weeks on a breast milk diet will help protect babies from stomach disease and infection, Anna Coutsoudis, a public health scientist at the University of KwaZulu-Natal who is directing the setup of the banks, told TakePart.

Major hospitals in each of KwaZulu-Natal’s 11 districts will each get a milk bank, thanks to joint funding from the government and the philanthropic ELMA Foundation. Donor moms will be screened and then instructed to express their milk by hand into sterile containers. Smaller clinics can also help by sending donations to those centers, which will be distributed throughout their districts. In addition, international nonprofit PATH, South African researchers, and computer scientists at the University of Washington in Seattle have developed a low-cost device called FoneAstra—which works with a mobile phone to monitor temperature levels as workers flash-heat the milk to sterilize it—that will be used at some smaller hospital and community milk banks.

The donations will then be available to babies whose mothers have died or who are too sick to breast-feed them right away.

“It’s giving that mom a chance to recover or build up her breast milk supply so she can then take over,” Coutsoudis said.

South Africa suffers a high rate of infant mortality. According to the World Bank, 33 of every 1,000 babies died before the age of one in 2013. Malnutrition, deadly diarrhea, and pneumonia contribute to that number—but the nutrients and antibodies in breast milk can help keep babies healthy, Coutsoudis said. The idea of breast milk banks started to gain traction a few years ago, and in 2011, the nation’s minister of health, Aaron Motsoaledi, voiced his support for breast-feeding efforts.

“It was the only thing we could do if we wanted to reverse our infant mortality statistics,” Coutsoudis said.

The country’s breast-feeding rate hovers at an average of 8 percent, though it ranges from zero to 100 percent depending on the community, Coutsoudis said. Why so low? One reason is that until recently, HIV-positive mothers were discouraged from breast-feeding their babies, and the government provided free formula for families in need. However, recent research showed that antiretroviral therapy could prevent transmission of the virus from mother to child, making it safe for mothers to breast-feed again.

“The benefits of breast-feeding are huge and far outweigh the risk of HIV,” Coutsoudis said.

Heavy-handed marketing from formula manufacturers also led to a culture of bottle feeding. However, in late 2012, South Africa adopted new regulations eliminating advertisements for formula, banning pictures of babies on formula labels, and requiring formula literature to state that the breast is best.

Even with new guidelines for HIV-infected mothers and the removal of free formula samples from clinics, the culture is changing slowly, Coutsoudis said. Many mothers cannot balance nursing with their jobs, and some families see being able to afford formula as a status symbol. Others believe milk alone can’t be enough for newborns and add tea or porridge to their babies’ diets.

KwaZulu-Natal, the most populous province, has led the nation in pushing for exclusive breast-feeding, Coutsoudis said. In addition to its milk banks initiative, it’s also training health care workers and hiring lactation assistants to help new moms breast-feed and using social media and radio ads to promote the practice.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, in partnership with the Human Milk Banking Association of South Africa, has also funded banks in five smaller hospitals throughout the 11 districts. Coutsoudis expects to have five of the major banks and all of the smaller ones running by the end of 2015, with the rest of the larger banks to come in 2016. Even more support is coming: Coutsoudis and colleagues were recently given a grant by pharmaceutical manufacturer GlaxoSmithKline and Save the Children, which they will use to set up small, community-based milk banks in South Africa, Namibia, and Ethiopia.

“We are very excited,” she said. “I think things are looking up for the health of our babies.”

This post has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction Aug. 6, 2015: An earlier version of this article misstated the funders of the five milk banks at the smaller hospitals. They are the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in partnership with the Human Milk Banking Association of South Africa.