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World Breastfeeding Week: Donated breastmilk can save lives

Written by Ndivhuwo Mukwevho

With the celebration of World Breastfeeding Week in August, South African mothers are encouraged to donate their breastmilk to others, as it is a key intervention that can save the lives of at-risk low birth-weight infants.

With breastfeeding being one of the most effective ways to ensure child health and survival, according to the World Health Organisation, executive director of the South African Breastmilk Reserve (SABR) Stasa Jordan has called on mothers to donate breastmilk to others to ensure the survival of all infants.

Speaking to Health-e News, Jordan said it is extremely important for mothers to donate breastmilk to save the lives of low birth-weight infants who are admitted to neonatal intensive care units (NICU).

“It is important to donate breastmilk to support fellow mothers during trying times and to save the lives of extremely low birth-weight infants at high risk in the NICU. Women who are eligible to donate must be lactating, not living with STIs and not taking certain medication. If you really think about it, breastfeeding protects the baby from these insecurities (malnutrition, diarrhoea, pneumonia), which are the leading causes of infant mortality under the age of five,” said Jordan.

SABR is a human-milk bank that was founded in 2003 and has supported the healthcare system and the community of breastfeeding mothers across South Africa since its establishment.

According to the WHO, breastfeeding is one of the most effective ways to ensure child health and survival, however, nearly two out of three infants are not exclusively breastfed for the recommended first six months of their loves – a statistic that has not improved in past two decades.

https://twitter.com/WHO/status/1421596853842456576

Breastmilk: Preventing infant mortality

Jordan explained that breastmilk is one of the main factors that plays a critical role in preventing infant mortality.

“Donated breastmilk is a key intervention that leads to a decline in the infant mortality rate through the prevention of sepsis and necrotising enterocolitis in the premature population group. Donated breastmilk plays a key role in alleviating the inevitable lactation problems that arise because of access restrictions to mother,” said Jordan.

World Breastfeeding Week is commemorated during the first week of August, which represents a global celebration of breastfeeding efforts, including breastfeeding promotion, support, education, research, progressive trends and normalising breastfeeding as the gold standard of infant nutrition.

With South Africa currently battling COVID-19, Jordan said the pandemic has also had a negative impact on breastmilk donation.

“Breastmilk donations have been affected at the facility level, where some hospital that have human milk banks have had to send mothers home, thus hindering lactation and donation. However, donations at the reserve, which is our head office, have nearly doubled. The reserve collects breastmilk from moms in private home and in the community,” she said.

“As of June 2021, tertiary hospital facilities were locked down again. In some instances, lodger facilities for mothers with hospitalised infants are being evacuated in favour of erecting COVID-19 wards. COVID-19 has had a marked impact on maternal and child health, especially for hospitalised babies. Hospital access restriction has often led to the separation of the dyad, with this having a direct impact on breastmilk supply for babies in NICU.”

Malnutrition rates expected to rise

In the 2020/1 period, SABR helped 5 729 hospitalised premature babies receive breastfeeding support, which is 2 800 more than during the previous year. However, with the country currently in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Jordan believes that child malnutrition rates are expected to rise.

“South Africa’s child stunting levels – an indication of chronic and long-term food insecurity – increased from 21% in 2008 to 27% in 2016. Now, with the devastation of COVID-19 and the subsequent lockdown in South Africa, child malnutrition rates are expected to increase,” said Jordan.

“Both prematurity and malnutrition have devastating effects on the cognitive and physical development of children in their formative years. Already before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, South Africa found itself in a precarious situation with food and nutrition, especially for young children.”

SABR works in partnership with provincial departments of health, and has established human milk banks in the public health system, as well as a reserve bank in Johannesburg that independently collects 1 500 breastmilk units monthly.

Jordan also encouraged mothers to invest in breastfeeding to ensure that their babies are never stranded without food, no matter what circumstances they might find themselves under.

Awareness remains a priority

“I think an area of even greater priority than human milk banking awareness is for the public to fully understand the value of breastfeeding your own children as a health intervention that protects babies from disease and death. The reason I say this is that the recent unrest caused a food disruption to the KwaZulu-Natal province, leaving many a formula-dependent baby somewhat stranded. My greatest wish is for all new moms to learn from this and realise that breastfeeding offers food security for your baby as it is not affected by looting, load shedding, water restrictions and affordability,” she said.

“Naturally, we want to raise awareness about the human milk banks, but that comes spontaneously when mother choose to breastfeed. The bottom line is they can’t loot your boobs, so breastfeed to protect your baby. During uncertain times, breastfeeding becomes a survival strategy.”

According to the acting spokesperson for the Limpopo Provincial Health Department Derrick Kganyago, the province’s two breastmilk banks at Mankweng and Philadelphia hospitals have not been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, but mothers should continue donating.

“Limpopo currently has two breastmilk banks and these have not been affected by COVID-19, as mothers who are admitted to the two hospitals are our main donors. Mothers should not be afraid to breastfeed or donate their breastmilk during the pandemic. There is no need to stop expressing for donation, even after receiving the vaccination,” said Kganyago.

According to the World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action (WABA), the scaling up of breastfeeding can prevent 20 000 maternal deaths and 823 000 child deaths annually. It is also estimated that at least $302 billion in economic losses can be prevented per year.

The global network also states that optimal breastfeeding is vital to the lifelong good health and wellbeing of women and children. – Health-e News

About the author

Ndivhuwo Mukwevho

Ndivhuwo Mukwevho is citizen journalist who is based in the Vhembe District of Limpopo province. He joined OurHealth in 2015 and his interests lie in investigative journalism and reporting the untold stories of disadvantaged rural communities. Ndivhuwo holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Media Studies from the University of Venda and he is currently a registered student with UNISA.