FDA Weighs in on Breast Milk Sharing


In cases like these, human milk banks have been a godsend for women.

"Milk banks are important in the way that blood banks are important," said Karla Shepard Rubinger, executive director of the Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine. "Blood banks need oversight and regulations. You ask most people about milk banks and they go 'yucky.' Ask them how they feel about blood banks, and they'll say we need to support them."

According to the Human Milk Banking Association of North America, milk banks dispensed a total of 409,077 ounces of milk in 2000. In 2005, that number increased by 45 percent. And demand continues to grow.

Standards for Breast Milk Donation

The Human Milk Banking Association was established in 1985 and currently acts as the umbrella association for nonprofit North American milk banks. The organization sets standards and develops guidelines that include donor screening and pasteurization.

While many milk banks voluntarily follow the milk banking association's guidelines, the FDA has recently become aware of for-profit milk banks like Prolacta Bioscience, a large-scale human milk company, and the donation and selling of breast milk through the Internet.

"We need doctors and regulators to become more informed, because we need them to regulate this -- not to prevent it but to support it happening in a way that protects mothers and babies," Rubinger said.

Some of that support could be financial. At $3.50 an ounce, the continuous need for breast milk can add up to a significant amount of money each month, but Mothers' Milk Bank does not require immediate payment if parents cannot afford it.

"Insurance companies say the breast milk is not a necessity, so right now, we're fighting with the insurance company to cover it," said Bookhart.

Online Milk Sharing

High costs and high demand have caused some women to turn to Internet-based organizations, such as Eats on Feets, a global initiative that connects milk donors with women who need milk. Women can now post their breast milk needs on Eats on Feets Facebook pages.

"We have an online space for families in need and women who have a surplus," said Emma Kwasnica, a 32-year-old mother of three from Montreal and co-founder of Eats on Feets. "We're putting it back in the hands of the mothers."

Breast Milk and Contamination

While many pediatricians consider breast milk the perfect food for babies, human milk can be contaminated with bacteria and viruses, such as HIV, and can be a source of infection among nursing infants. The risks could be easily identified and controlled in the proper setting, but the FDA fears that, without screening, donors could inadvertently spread serious illness to the nursing babies.

Rubinger, of the Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine, said it's a matter of overcoming certain technicalities, drawing again on the blood bank analogy.

"There are a lot of issues with milk in milk banks, just as there are with blood in blood banks," she said. "This is not insurmountable information, though. That's why we have the scientists to deal with that."

Because Eats on Feets only provides a space for milk donors and recipients to connect, it requires no formal blood tests or screenings, although it encourages recipients to ask potential donors about their lifestyles and medications. But it's up to them to reach an agreement on blood tests and who will cover the costs.

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