Executive Director of the South African Breast Milk Reserve (SABR), Stasha Jordan, explains how breast milk banks can play a vital role in supporting breast milk feeding in South Africa.

Breast milk helps to reduce infections by strengthening babies’ immune systems. This is even more important for babies born prematurely and of very low birth weight.

Research has shown that infants who are not breastfed have a much higher risk of developing respiratory infections, diarrhoeal disease, allergies and asthma. The risk of ear infections has also been shown to be four times greater in the first year of life in babies who are formula fed. It has also been shown that breast milk contains the perfect nutrients for a baby’s brain to grow to its maximum potential and babies who were breastfed scored higher on intelligence tests.

A study published in the Lancet in 2013 indicated that optimal breast feeding of infants under two years of age has the potential to prevent over 800,000 deaths per year, 13% of all deaths in children under five in the developing world.

Unequal access to breast milk

Unfortunately not all infants have access to breast milk and local health authorities attribute low rates of exclusive breast feeding to the prevalence of poverty and to misinformation.

According to a study by South African medical researchers, formally employed HIV negative mothers were twice as likely to stop breast feeding by 12 weeks. In this study, most of the women had little or no maternity leave provision. Soon after giving birth, many poor mothers need to get working again. What little income they earned went towards purchasing formula milk instead.

The study also indicated the early introduction of formula milk and a steady increase in breast feeding cessation amongst HIV negative women could not be prevented, despite postnatal home visits from peer breast feeding counsellors.

The researchers remarked that this scenario is unique to South Africa as the use of formula milk within the first six months of an infant’s life is uncommon in other parts of continent.

The winning formula of breast milk banks

Breast milk banks can play a vital role in supporting breast milk feeding in South Africa; however, it’s important to carefully consider the regulations around milk banking in South Africa.

The South African Department of Health is currently developing regulations on milk banking. While some of the existing milk banks follow standards and guidelines set by the Human Milk Banking Association of South Africa (HMBASA), for processing and pasteurising, others follow the SABR guidelines modelled on the NICE guidelines for human milk banking. They operate independently using different funding mechanisms to meet community needs. Three human milk bank models, all of which are not-for-profit, are found in South Africa.

Ethical breast milk donation

The ethical distribution and capacity management of donated breast milk (DBM) for the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) in hospitals have become key focus areas in the breastfeeding and healthcare sectors.

The current regulatory framework for human milk banking in South Africa gives us an opportunity to reflect on the importance of treating DBM in accordance with the ethical standard that guides the human tissue and organ donation sector. 10 years into active human milk banking at the hospital level, we are witnessing a growing desire of prescribing doctors to exceed the current DBM user guidelines.

An equitable allocation system for donated breast milk that takes into consideration utility, justice and respect for person, should drive the ethical considerations that pertain to universal access and distribution of donated breast milk.

Stakeholders in human milk banking in South Africa have differing views on whether access to this tissue should be a right or a privilege.

According to CEO of the KwaZulu-Natal Managed Care Coalition Ltd and Chairman of the Independent Practitioners Association Foundation (IPAF) of SA, Professor Morgan Chetty, there are three ethical issues that also need to guide the use of human milk that is banked: decision making, informed consent, and conflict of interest.

“In the first instance, decision making is currently guided by a combination of the best available scientific evidence, clinical experience and consideration of the needs of individual patients. If donor milk is available and the evidence of human milk’s advantage over commercial formula feeding is universally accepted, the clinician’s decision should be to support the choice of mother’s milk,” said Professor Chetty.

Professor Chetty adds that clinicians must also provide information about current state of knowledge of mother’s milk as part of informed consent process for infant feeds. “There is also the issue of market incentives to use commercial formula. Healthcare providers should disclose any relationship with entities that could influence their recommendations or discussions with the parents,” said Professor Chetty.

In the face of increasing need for human breast milk, it’s important that we work to overcome the ‘negative’ attitude and misperception South African women have towards breast feeding. Improving access to breast milk banking is one step in the right direction. However, we need to carefully consider the ethical considerations of breast milk banking to prevent hurting the same infants we are looking to protect.

Stasha Jordan and Professor Morgan Chetty will both be speaking at the Ethics, Human Rights & Medical Law conference, which will form part of the 7th annual Africa Health Exhibition & Congress 2017 taking place from 7-9 June 2017 at the Gallagher Convention Centre in Johannesburg.

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