A report this week in the journal Pediatrics on the risks of unregulated breast milk – covering sharing between friends, but also Internet sales – found three-fourths of the study samples were contaminated with bacteria.
The populations most at risk from such milk are newborns with significant health issues. They’re children like Nina DeGuire. Now a year old, she was born with a serious heart problem that required a series of surgeries and made it hard for her to take formula. Her mother Lani says she had no choice but to find donated breast milk.
“I pumped breast milk for her in the hospital and continue to pump breast milk for her,” DeGuire says, “but for many reasons did not produce enough. And so we relied on donor breast milk to supplement what I couldn’t give her.” And so DeGuire turned to Austin’s milk bank.
“The Mothers’ Milk Bank at Austin follows all of the guidelines under the [Human Milk Banking Association of North America] standard,” Updegrove says. “Those standards include how to screen a healthy lactating mother to make sure that her life style and her medical risk factors are safe.”
Updegrove says each ounce of breast milk is heated to 62.5 degrees Celsius for thirty minutes. “And then the milk is frozen, tested once again … to prove that there’s no bacterial growth left in that milk,” she says. “And then it’s dispensed.”
But screening and pasteurizing adds cost to milk supplies. Patients like Nina DeGuire who received a prescription from a doctor might have some of the cost of the milk covered by their health insurance. Those without a prescription or insurance could pay upwards of $6 an ounce. And that could lead patients to seek out cheaper or easier supplies elsewhere.
In Austin there’s an alternative. “We provide the milk first, stabilize the child and then we investigate is there an insurance payer who might be approached to cover these processing fees,” Updegrove says. “If there is no payer, then we raise the funds necessary to make sure that that milk supply continues to that child.”
But with only 13 nonprofit Milk Banks nationwide, Austin ships milk all over the country. Supplies – and funds – are often scarce. The Mothers’ Milk Bank at Austin launched a campaign this week to encourage lactating mothers to donate.
With 14,000 births each year in Travis County alone, “that’s a lot of potential donors,” Updegrove says. “If even half of those women would call the milk bank and go through the screen process, be approved and donate even one hundred ounces, we’d have enough milk for the current demand – and we’d have enough to expand that demand to kids who were older.”