Mother's Milk Shipped to South Africa to Feed Starving Orphans

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Mothers in the United States and South Africa are helping to feed some of the world's most vulnerable children in a way that only mothers can.

There are roughly 3 million children in sub-Saharan Africa, age 5 and younger, whose mothers have died of AIDS.

At the IThemba Lethu orphanage in Durban, children receive love and care and something more -- breast milk -- donated mainly by white South African women.

"Because they are immune compromised, the immune properties in the breast milk are absolutely vital for them," said Perry Reimers, who runs the orphanage. "The breast milk gives them all the nutrition that they need."

Reimers finds the donors and collects the milk once or twice a week in some of Durban's wealthiest neighborhoods.

All the donors are screened, and their milk is pasteurized before it's given to the children.

How It Began

IThemba Lethu -- Zulu for "I have a destiny" -- was founded by Anna Coutsoudis, a professor in the pediatrics department at the University of Kwazulu-Natal.

The region of South Africa where the orphanage is has the highest incidence of HIV infections in the country. South Africa has one of the highest infection rates in the world.

Like many in the medical community here, Coutsoudis is dedicated to fighting the pandemic that's ravaging her country.

In 2000, she was deeply concerned about one of the babies in her care.

The baby's mother had died of AIDS, and the infant was not doing well on the formula milk.

Desperate to find a solution, Coutsoudis turned to a friend, a new mother who was still breast-feeding her own child.

The breast milk had an immediate effect on the orphan. From that chance beginning, the IThemba Lethu orphanage was born.

Women from all around Durban now come forward to help. Coutsoudis is determined to keep the program going for the sake of the orphans.

"They've already had so much depravation. … So we just feel that it is such a wonderful thing to at least supply them with breast milk. They have been deprived of a mother. … And this is almost like a proxy mother that we're giving them," she said.

Help From Abroad

When the children first come to the orphanage, they are so sick and malnourished they can barely cry, according to the caregivers.

Once they are fed, they thrive on the breast milk, and within a few weeks, they are full of life.

They gain weight almost immediately and don't get sick as often when they're drinking the breast milk.

The challenge, caregivers say, is to keep up with the demands of these hungry babies. But they get some help from unexpected sources. They recently received a phone call from a prospective donor thousands of miles away.

In Columbia, Mo., Jill Youse read about the IThemba Lethu orphanage on the Internet while she was breast-feeding her 10-month-old daughter, Estella.

"For children who are sick, especially if they have HIV or other diseases, breast milk could be the difference between life and death," Youse said.

She decided to get involved and found other breast-feeding mothers in her town who were also interested in helping the South African babies. Youse soon collected 24 gallons of frozen breast milk.

To transport the milk to South Africa, Youse contacted express carrier DHL, which agreed to ship the donation to South Africa free of charge.

Two days later, a fresh supply of breast milk arrived at the orphanage, where there was no shortage of helpful hands to do the unpacking.

The contributions from the United States -- which appear to be growing -- will ensure a strong supply line.

It won't replace the mothers they lost, but it will give them something every child needs -- a mother's love.

For more information, contact the International Breast Milk project

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