Breast milk bank crisis

Source:Global Times Published: 2015-5-3 20:38:01

Hospitals struggle to attract donors, parents turn to online marketplace

A baby drinks breast milk from a donor during an event for promoting breast feeding in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province, in August 2014. Photo: CFP

After a face-to-face interview and several rounds of blood tests, Wu Fangting (pseudonym), 26, officially became a donor to the breast milk bank at the Guangzhou Women and Children's Medical Center.

She was assigned serial number 452, meaning Wu is the center's 452nd donor.

Each day, four or five women like Wu donate their healthy breast milk to the bank for free, which is able to feed five or six sick babies in the hospital. But it's not enough - a total of 90 sick babies in the hospital need breast milk every day, Liu Xihong, co-founder of the bank with the Guangzhou Women and Children's Medical Center, told the Health News, a newspaper under the National Health and Family Planning Commission.

The Guangzhou center in South China's Guangdong Province established the mainland's first breast milk bank in March 2013, followed by medical centers in Jiangsu Province's Nanjing and Zhangjiagang.

All of the banks are now challenged by the difficulty of attracting donors and seeking enough funds to maintain their operations. Meanwhile, an online market for breast milk is booming.

Far from enough

To become a donor, according to Wu, mothers have to go through two stages. The first stage is interviews about possible bad habits, such as smoking, drinking and taking drugs, and to ensure the donor's baby is younger than 10 months old.

The second stage is blood tests. The donor is first tested for infectious diseases including HIV, hepatitis B and syphilis. After passing the tests, nurses will pump the donor's milk at the bank and then freeze it after disinfection, and they will also label each milk bottle with the donor's information, including the name, time of donation and the amount.

The donor has to have a second round of blood tests after the donation. If she fails the test, the milk she donated will be discarded.

The frozen breast milk can be stored for a maximum of half a year in the bank's refrigerator, according to the Southern Weekly.

Zhao Zhide, a science author, told the Beijing News that breast feeding prevents obesity and diabetes for babies, and reduces the rate of allergies and tympanitis.

The breast milk contains several nutrients that benefit ill, malnourished or premature infants, Liu said, adding that the donated milk is provided to sick infants for free.

The breast milk bank in Liu's hospital occupies a 20-square-meter room, and contains three refrigerators, an electric milk pump and milk analysis equipment.

So far, the hospital has received 600 liters of milk, which helped feed 110 sick babies.

Chen Xiaohui, co-founder of the breast milk bank in Nanjing Maternity and Child Health Care Hospital, told the Health News that the donated milk was only offered to newborn sick babies because of its scarcity.

A total of 288 mothers have donated their breast milk since the bank was founded in August 2013, and the amount of milk donated each day can help five to six sick babies, about a tenth of the 60 sick babies in need of breast milk every day in the hospital, Chen said.

Both Liu and Chen said that the complicated donation process impeded the amount of milk banks received.

China's breast milk banks require mothers to donate in the hospital to ensure safety, Liu said, adding that banks in the US collect milk pumped by donors at home.

Online sales 

Many mothers who are sick or give birth to sick babies turn to buying breast milk online, which triggered the popularity of the breast milk business.

On an information sharing website, there are dozens of sellers available in Beijing. Some of them posted photos of frozen milk with a storage time labeled on the bag, the milk pump and their meals. Some even claimed that they have passed milk tests conducted by hospitals.

A Beijing seller surnamed Zhao told the Beijing News that she earned several thousands of yuan for selling her breast milk since she had her child.

Zhao admitted that many buyers asked her about the safety of the milk, and she could only provide her health report conducted when she delivered her baby. She believed that the frozen milk can be stored for one year.

Another seller surnamed Huang said that frozen breast milk cannot be stored for more than four months, otherwise, the nutrition would be lost.

Doctors at Haidian Maternal and Child Health Hospital and Chaoyang Women and Children Hospital in Beijing told the Beijing News that their hospitals do not have breast milk tests.

A doctor at a private hospital said that the breast milk test the hospital offered only checks for nutrition, not bacteria and viruses.

Yun Wuxin, a food engineering doctor with Purdue University in the US, was quoted by the Beijing News as saying that breast milk sold online does not go through any checks or disinfections, which could pose safety concerns. "We should oppose selling breast milk even it's not illegal."

Long-term development 

Cai Guobin, a member of the Taiwan Democratic Self-Government League, submitted a proposal calling on all the provinces in China to establish breast milk banks during this year's meetings for top legislators and political advisors, which is the first proposal of its kind, the Southern Weekly reported.

Breast milk banks in countries like Bulgaria are subsidized by the government, and offer milk for free to sick babies. Banks in the US also obtain financial support from the government, and charge a certain fee from users, according to the Health News.

In China, there are only a few hospitals running banks by themselves. Donation and use are both for free.

Liu said that a total of 2 million yuan ($322,400) has been invested in the bank so far, including 500,000 yuan for operating the equipment.

"We could not maintain operations without support we received from hospitals and some private donations."

The online sale of breast milk reflects the importance of establishing breast milk banks, Liu said, adding that the country should draft regulations on collection and fees for using the milk to ensure the long-term development of the banks.

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