The milk of human kindness provides ‘priceless’ boost for vulnerable babies

Breastfeeding mothers ‘pay it forward’ by donating excess milk

Thursday, August 8 2019

Breastmilk is considered the gold standard in infant nutrition and provides invaluable immune protection for babies in the first months of their lives. For premature babies and newborns who are unable to breastfeed or whose mothers’ breastmilk cannot, for whatever reason, be used to feed them, donated human breastmilk provides the best possible start in life.

Verena Bolton, national coordinator of Netcare Ncelisa Human Milk Banks, explains that the properties of breastmilk, particularly when it is appropriate to the age of the baby, assists in the prevention of a host of possible infections.

“While breastmilk is by no means a ‘silver bullet’, the natural protection it provides through vital immune factors contained within the milk certainly benefits babies. It is particularly advantageous for premature neonates who have minimal, if any, acquired or innate immune protection because they have been born so early,” she explains.

Pic: One of the premature babies at the neonatal unit at Rahima Moosa Mother and Child Hospital who has benefitted from donated breastmilk through the Netcare Ncelisa Human Milk Banks.

Between November 2017 and the end of June 2019, over 800 babies received donated breastmilk through Netcare Ncelisa Human Milk Banks, an initiative of the Netcare Foundation.

Breastmilk is donated by eligible women who are breastfeeding and have excess milk, which they express under specific hygienic conditions and deliver it to Netcare Ncelisa human milk banks or depots based at 37 Netcare maternity facilities. The milk is then pasteurised, and then it is tested, frozen and safely stored

“Many of our donors are mothers whose babies were once recipients of breastmilk from Ncelisa, and they see it as an opportunity of assisting others in need or ‘paying it forward’.”

According to Bolton, breastmilk is incomparable with formula feeds in terms of immune benefits. “None of the formulas on the market have the antibody IgA. IgA, which is one of a range of immunoglobulins, confers immunity to neonates until their immune system has matured sufficiently to start producing its own IgA. Formulas also don’t have oligosaccharides, which are prebiotics and prime the baby’s digestive system with normal gut flora; and lactoferrin, which destroys harmful microorganisms. As such, in the majority of cases breastmilk is considered to offer the best possible start in life for babies.

Mothers produce colostrum, which has been hailed as nature’s ‘superfood’ for newborn babies, in the first few days after birth. Colostrum, also referred to as ‘liquid gold’ owing to its yellowish orange colour and highly beneficial properties, is eventually replaced by mature breastmilk around the third to fourth day after birth, and the milk’s composition continues to evolve in line with the needs of the growing baby.

“Babies whose health is compromised in some way receive the most benefit, particularly from age-appropriate milk, and this can play an invaluable role in their survival and in supporting their development and recovery.”

In February 2019, Netcare Ncelisa Human Milk Banks also started providing breast milk to hospitals in the public sector, including Rahima Moosa Mother and Child Hospital, while discussions are underway with Charlotte Maxeke Johannesburg Academic Hospital to also supply them with donated breastmilk.

“Between February and July, more than 80 newborn babies, including 44 in June and July alone, received donor milk through the Ncelisa initiative, and we are aiming to expand access to donor milk to more public hospitals,” explains Mande Toubkin, Netcare’s general manager of emergency, trauma, transplant and corporate social investment.

“Given the invaluable – one might say ‘priceless’ – health benefits widely attributed to breastmilk, it is noteworthy that Netcare Foundation, through Netcare Ncelisa Milk Banks, supplies this milk free of charge for newborns both within the public and private sectors,” she says.

Professor Ashraf Coovadia, Academic Head of the Department, Paediatrics and Child Health, University of the Witwatersrand, and head of the paediatric department at Rahima Moosa Mother and Child Hospital, recently commented on the donor milk supplied by Netcare Ncelisa Human Milk Banks.

“We are hugely grateful to Netcare and the donor milk project that has been in place for several months now. It could not have started at a better time as we were facing an outbreak of necrotizing enterocolitis [NEC]. One of the neonatal unit’s major initiatives at the time was to increase the rates of breastmilk usage amongst the premature babies. Whether coincidental or actually causal, our NEC rates have dropped. It may be early days, but I can say that we have certainly changed the odds of babies developing NEC in the unit,” he said.

“Our experience with Netcare managing this programme has only been a positive one characterised by a high level of efficiency and commitment to making this work in the most cost-effective and safe manner possible.”

Netcare Ncelisa Human Milk Banks were established in November 2017, with the first milk bank set up at Netcare Park Lane Hospital in Johannesburg. In the following year, four more milk banks were started, namely at Netcare Blaauwberg Hospital in the Western Cape, Netcare Cuyler Hospital in the Eastern Cape, Netcare Femina Hospital in Gauteng, and Netcare Parklands Hospital in KwaZulu-Natal.

Complying with the proposed regulations set out by the South African Department of Health, and aligned to international protocols on the management of human milk banks, Ncelisa Milk Banks employs a state-of-the-art digital system to track and trace breastmilk donations every step of the way from donor to recipient, and record all details relevant to matching age appropriate donor milk to the recipient babies.

“Our aim is to make breastmilk accessible to as many premature, vulnerable and high-risk babies as possible, and we therefore encourage mothers who understand the important benefits of breastmilk to consider becoming donors,” Toubkin says.

Prospective donors are screened for a number of health conditions that could impact the safety of the milk, and must complete a lifestyle questionnaire and consent form. They are then provided with information about how to safely express, store and transport their milk to a Ncelisa milk bank or depot. Women who are interested in becoming donors can contact any of the 37 Netcare hospitals with maternity facilities for more information.

“Our work in ensuring this priceless elixir reaches those babies who need it most, is a most rewarding labour of love. Fortunately, affordability is no barrier to access, thanks to the provisions of the Netcare Foundation. We thank all the mothers who have, or are, donating breastmilk, for their generosity of spirit and we would like to encourage others to consider getting involved, so that more babies can benefit from donor milk,” Bolton concludes.

Issued by:     MNA on behalf of Netcare Ncelisa Milk Banks
Contact:    Martina Nicholson, Graeme Swinney, Meggan Saville or Estene Lotriet-Vorster
Telephone:    (011) 469 3016
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