Booster Shots

Oddities, musings and news from the health world

Category: Disaster preparedness

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.

The World Health Organization’s Copenhagen pitch on climate change

December 18, 2009 |  5:54 pm

As talks came to an end in Copenhagen, the World Health Organization tried to explain that climate change is about more than the environment -- it's a human health concern too.

As WHO scientist Diarmid Campbell-Lendrum said on the News Hour on Thursday, "Three and a half million die from under-nutrition. That's entirely dependent on agricultural production. And all of those deaths occur in the parts of the world that are going to be most affected by climate change."

Malaria is another heat-sensitive global health threat, which is expected to worsen with changing weather patterns. But, on the bright side, the World Health Organization reported this week that malaria-fighting funds, which went from $300 million in 2003 to $1.7 billion this year, are paying off. In a third of the 108 "malarious" countries, reports of sickness dropped by more than half since 2000.

And the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation just awarded researchers nearly $10 million to create a malaria vaccine. 

However, in case you're visiting a "malarious" country any time soon, here's some tips from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on keeping clear of the mosquito-borne bug.

-- Amina Khan

Boosting health and the economy

March 10, 2009 | 10:10 am

Public health advocates are praising the $1 billion for disease prevention and wellness programs included in President Obama's economic stimulus package but say that it is only a fraction of the billions needed to keep the country  healthy.

The United States spent about $35 billion a year on disease prevention in 2008, or about $17 per person, according to Jeffrey Levi, executive director of Trust for America's Health, a Washington-based advocacy group. That compares with $2.4 trillion spent on treatment.

According to the ounce-of-prevention argument, spending on the former would help whittle down the latter.

Public health spending covers a wide variety of programs, including inspecting restaurants, tracking tuberculosis cases, providing vaccines, preparing for disasters and promoting exercise and nutrition.  Such services are intended to counter, among other things, food poisoning outbreaks, the spread of infectious diseases and the surge in chronic conditions such as obesity and diabetes.

But faced with a financial crisis, local and state governments are cutting public health spending. More than 11,000 public health jobs were eliminated in 2008, Robert M. Pestronk, executive director of the National Assn. of County and City Health Officials, said during a teleconference this morning. That, he said, is the equivalent of two states completely shutting down their public health departments.

The teleconference was called to publicize the release of a report called "Shortchanging America's Health: A State-By-State Look at How Federal Public Health Dollars Are Spent," produced by Trust for America's Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

"It's essential that as the country considers ways to reform its health system, we not only think about providing quality healthcare to everyone but that a strong public health program has to be the cornerstone," Pestronk said.

-- Mary Engel

More worried than ready for disaster

September 2, 2008 |  3:55 pm

Disaster preparedness officials, it seems, have their work cut out for them. Only 34% of people affected by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 said they were very prepared for another major hurricane, according to a survey by the Harvard School of Public Health.

Hurricane1 When Hurricane Gustav was still just a thunderstorm ambling over warm, equatorial waters, researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health surveyed people affected by Hurricane Katrina or other hurricanes within the last five years. They asked 5,055 people who lived 20 miles from the coast in eight states -- Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana (including a sample from New Orleans), Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Texas. They compared responses from people who had been directly affected by Hurricane Katrina with those who had not been directly affected. Only 34% of all those interviewed said they were very prepared for a major hurricane, whether they had been directly affected or not.

But even if two-thirds of the respondents weren't ready, many were worried. Those not affected by Katrina were most worried about having enough gasoline in their cars to evacuate. Those who were in Katrina's path were worried about gasoline availability but were even more worried about having enough fresh water and medical care if disaster struck.

Some 17% of people living in mobile homes, at high risk of destruction in hurricanes and tornadoes, said they would not evacuate if officials told them to. Another 17% of mobile-home residents in hurricane country said they were not prepared at all for a major hurricane.

"The top concerns of people in high-risk hurricane areas -- having enough fresh water, getting medical care, and obtaining gas to evacuate -- are all things that public officials can plan for before the major storms of this season hit," Robert J. Blendon, professor of health policy and political analysis at the Harvard School of Public Health, said in a news release.

Given the orderly evacuation of nearly 2 million people from the Gulf Coast for Gustav compared with Katrina, it seems public officials, at least, have taken lessons from the school of experience. But there is still a significant number of unprepared individuals.

-- Susan Brink

Photo: NOAA satellite image of Hurricane Hanna over Nassau. Credit: HO / AFP / Getty Images


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