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Infant victims of Haiti's earthquake need breast milk*

January 28, 2010 |  6:55 am

OK, you've opened your hearts to the hundreds of thousands of bereft and destitute victims of the Haitian earthquake. Hopefully, you've opened your wallets and maybe even scoured your closets for things to send.

But -- and here, I address myself to lactating moms -- have you opened your shirt yet?

Several groups promoting breast milk and breastfeeding are putting out an "urgent call" for human milk donations, saying the infrastructure is "now in place" for aid groups to receive and distribute breast milk to premature and orphaned infants affected by the earthquake in Haiti.

In fact, human milk donations right now can only be delivered safely aboard the U.S. Navy ship Comfort, which has a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit and is caring for some Haitian babies born prematurely. But Gina Ciagne, a certified lactation counselor* and director of breastfeeding and consumer relations at Lansinoh Labs, said it's important for women willing to pump their milk for donation to identify themselves to the closest chapter of the Human Milk Banking Assn. of North America. They'll need to get their blood tested and certify that they don't take most medications or herbal supplements, don't smoke or take illegal drugs, and are willing to donate at least 100 ounces of milk.

The Human Milk Banking Assn. of North America is one of the groups making the appeal for donations. Joining the group are: LaLeche League International, the U.S. and International Lactation Consultants Associations and the United States Breastfeeding Committee.

Milk donations must be processed and pasteurized in a human milk bank before shipping and then kept in a steady state of refrigeration until they reach recipients -- a tall order in the ruined country, where electricity is virtually nonexistent and relief deliveries remain spotty in many places. Late last week, UNICEF put out a statement saying "conditions are not currently met in Haiti" for human milk donations.

At the same time, UNICEF underscored the importance of nourishing and protecting babies in disaster sitiations by encouraging the continuation -- and resumption, where possible -- of breastfeeding. The U.N. office called exclusive breastfeeding of babies under 6 months old "a lifeline" in this emergency situation, where water treatment infrastructure is damaged or nonexistent and communicable diseases are on the rise.

UNICEF also repeated "internationally accepted guidelines" that strongly discourage the donation of breast-milk substitutes such as infant formula or powdered milk or milk products. Because those may require the use of water that is not sufficiently clean and because milk replacements can prompt some traumatized nursing mothers to cease or reduce their breastfeeding, denying their babies some of breastmilk's protective benefits.

That was a problem after the Asian tsunami of 2004. According to the Emergency Nutrition Network, some 72% of families with infants received donated baby formula. The result was a dramatic decline in breastfeeding and a tripling of diarrheal diseases among babies, the British group concluded. "People are really well-meaning, and it's a very difficult concept for people to grasp," said lactation consultant Gina Ciagne. "But breastfeeding is going to be so much better."

-- Melissa Healy

*This blog clarifies Ciagne's title.

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