More breast milk banks to open in South Africa

30 October 2015

Following a decision taken by Health Minister Dr Aaron Motsoaledi in 2011 to stop providing free formula milk to new mothers and to promote exclusive breastfeeding, the number of breast milk banks across the country has been increasing.

Kuruman’s Tshwaragano District Hospital in Northern Cape is set to become home to South Africa’s latest human breast milk bank as another bank is reportedly scheduled to open in Limpopo.

Why the need for a breast milk bank?

According to the Northern Cape department of health, the initiative – piloted with the help of the international health organisation Path – will help to improve infant nutrition. Path district mentor Ronelle Khumalo said at a Women’s Health Dialogue that Path would build awareness about the programme as well as recruit new mothers as donors. Donors are screened for HIV and other illnesses.

Fridges in which to store the milk have already been ordered for the hospital. The milk is expected to help children, including orphaned and sick infants, as well as babies who might live with guardians, such as grandmothers, who are not their biological mothers.

The breast milk bank is located in the John Taolo Gaetsewe health district, where about 13% of children under the age of five admitted for severe malnutrition in 2014, died, according to the recently released District Health Barometer.

Support groups

Path says it will also be partnering with the Department of Health to establish support groups for breastfeeding mothers to discuss issues around breastfeeding. Fathers will be encouraged to attend.

In August, the South African Broadcasting Corporation reported that a breast milk bank had also been planned for Limpopo’s Mankweng Hospital in Polokwane.

The rising number of breast milk banks across the country is a product of renewed calls to promote breastfeeding. After South Africa reportedly charted some of the lowest rates of exclusive breastfeeding in the world, Motsoaledi took a decision in 2011 to stop providing free formula milk and to promote exclusive breastfeeding for all mothers, including those who were HIV-positive, provided they were on antiretroviral treatment.

International agencies such as Unicef have supported the shift, pointing out that infant formula lacks essential nutrients and antibodies to protect children from illnesses such diarrhoea and pneumonia. Exclusive breastfeeding also reduces the risk of mother-to-child HIV transmission in comparison to mixed feeding, or when mothers feed babies breast milk and solids like porridge.

How breast milk feeds babies born to HIV-positive mothers

Stasha Jordan founded the South African Breastmilk Reserve (SABR) after she had done research for her Masters degree in public policy and policy guidelines on the feeding of babies born to HIV-positive mothers, coupled with the fact that she too had become a mother, reported Media Club South Africa

SABR was formally registered in 2005. “We saw that mixed feeding – formula and breast milk – could increase the escalation of infection,” Jordan said. “A human milk bank works better. It prevents the mixed feeding of HIV-exposed infants.”

She had found the opportunity to make a difference for humanity, Jordan said.

Promoting breastfeeding is in line with South Africa’s health goals as set out in the National Development Plan of reducing maternal, infant and child mortality from 56 to below 30 per 1 000 live births, and reducing mother-to-child HIV transmission to zero by 2030.

How human milk banking works

Healthy mothers are encouraged to voluntarily donate breast milk. The donated milk is then pasteurised. “In South Africa, where so many women are HIV-positive, sourcing donor mothers has even more importance than in the western world,” states the SABR website.

“Without breast milk during their first two weeks of life, premature infants (especially those with a low birth weight) are left wanting for antibodies and are vulnerable to infections and diseases that result in hundreds of deaths annually.”

The SABR runs 44 milk banks across the country and is expanding fast: in 2014, it fed 1 689 babies, while this year it has reached more than 2 800, noted British newspaper The Guardian.

Source: News24Wire and SouthAfrica.info reporter