Africa’s first human milk bank opened this month, providing donated breast milk to at-risk infants on the island of Cape Verde, says a British Medical Journal report.
The bank is the first of four planned on the African continent with the aid of Brazil’s network of Human Milk Banks. Banks in Mozambique, Angola and a second in Cape Verde are in the works.
In developing countries where HIV, infant death and severe malnutrition are prevalent health issues, donated breast milk is, for now, a solution.
A new mother infected with HIV has a 40 percent chance of passing HIV to her infant through breast milk after two years of breastfeeding. However, the risk of intestinal or respiratory infections among children who are not breastfed is even greater.
The World Health Organization reports that early initiation of breastfeeding in developing countries could save 1.45 million lives. Yet, less than 40 percent of babies less under six months of age are breastfed, according to UNICEF.
Water supplies in developing countries can be contaminated with parasites and bacteria, causing serious, and sometimes fatal, diarrheal illness.
Babies who are not breastfed are often given water to drink from this supply, formula mixed with water, or other liquids made from this same supply. An alternative, untreated cow’s milk, does not provide adequate nutrition for an infant’s development.
Breast milk banks were first created in 1909 in Austria and slowly gained popularity until the 1980s, when breast milk began to test positive for HIV. A decade later, screening methods improved and since then, banks have developed across the world.
Thirteen U.S. states now have human breast milk banks. Canada has two. North American banks have been most useful for premature babies or multiples — twins, triplets, quadruplets — whose mothers cannot breastfeed adequately.
Brazil has run human milk banks for 30 years, with 202 banks currently in operation. With their support, the four new African banks will have the capacity to collect, pasteurize and freeze breast milk for distribution.
The International Breast Milk Project, a U.S.-based organization, has shipped over 270,000 ounces of breast milk to South Africa – the latest donation just last week – where an estimated 1.4 million children, including premature babies, are left orphaned by HIV and AIDS.
However, the Cape Verde bank is the first to collect, house, process and distribute breast milk within the continent itself.
Donations will come from local women who deliver babies in the main hospital, according to the BMJ report. The rest will come from volunteers.