The Health Ministry has issued guidelines for the establishment of one or more breast milk banks in hospitals that would freeze, pasteurize and then re-freeze donated milk for the consumption mainly by premature infants and babies born with congenital or other gastrointestinal defects.

Dr. Lisa Rubin, who heads the maternal and child health department, said she hoped such a facility could be established in less than a year. She visited a number of the 13 breast milk banks in the US, but she conceded she has not visited the unknown number of voluntary breast milk banks set up by ultra-Orthodox women over the decades.

She said she believed, however, that these unofficial banks do not pasteurize their donations. She also didn’t know if these facilities tested donations for HIV, hepatitis and other viral conditions or depended only on the health declarations of donors. Rubin did not say if she would allow the voluntary banks to continue functioning or require them to function according to ministry guidelines.

In 2005, then-health minister Dan Naveh declared in honor of Breastfeeding Encouragement week that his ministry would “help establish a mother’s milk bank to feed the 700 premature babies born with gastrological conditions that deteriorate with commercial milk formula and whose mothers could not breast-feed.”

However, almost two years later after Naveh left office, the ministry stated it had set down “standards for the operation of mother’s milk banks” if anyone cared to go into the business. Ministry officials admitted it had no budget to fund such a project and would leave the field open to private enterprise. The Knesset even passed a law nine years ago establishing a national milk bank to supply mother’s milk to babies who are not breastfed, and therefore, do not receive the nutrients contained in milk.

Until the discovery of the HIV virus in the early 1980s, a few groups of haredi women who had recently given birth would supply extra milk to premature infants of other women who could not breastfeed and/or those who suffered from necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC). This condition, which is believed to occur in between one percent and 5% of neonatal intensive care unit patients, is the most common and serious gastrointestinal disorder among hospitalized premature infants. The babies, whose immature bowels are sensitive to changes in blood flow and prone to infection, may develop NEC. In severe cases, a hole may develop in the intestine, allowing bacteria to leak into the abdomen and cause life-threatening infection.

Nearly a decade ago, the ministry recognized the fact that giving mother’s milk to such babies who can’t get it from their own mothers can save a great deal of money in treating various diseases much more prevalent among infants that do not get breast milk. But the ministry soon abandoned the idea, only to raise it again now and have Rubin resuscitate it.

Rubin told The Jerusalem Post it was better for breast milk to go directly from mother to baby and that the quality declined somewhat when it was frozen, pasteurized and re-frozen, but these were necessary to ensure they were not dangerous.

“Breast milk is a precious commodity. There are priorities if a mother cannot breastfeed her infant, and the top priority is premature babies and those with NEC or similar disorders.” A small number of infants whose mothers died in childbirth or soon after would also have priority, along with adopted infants.

She said donors would not be paid for their donations and mothers of recipients would not have to pay for them. The donor would have to undergo blood tests every six months, but abroad, most women donate for only about four months.

“We are only at the beginning, but we are looking for ways to provide hospitals with an incentive to get involved. We think there will either be depots where women would bring batches of breast milk they have frozen at home or that a van would come to their homes and pick them up. The donors of each batch will have to be traceable in case a medical problem is discovered, Rubin said.

The ministry will have to run a publicity campaign to raise public awareness of the project, she said.

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