Bottles with breast milk donated by nursing mothers.
(photo credit: REUTERS/SAUL MARTINEZ)
After more than a decade of delays, the Health Ministry expects to open a mother’s milk bank by mid-2018.
The need for a supervised breast milk bank is urgent because only about 50% of mothers of premature babies are able to breastfeed and some infants cannot digest processed milk formula.
Dr. Lisa Rubin, who is in charge of maternal and children’s health at the ministry, told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday that the issue is very complicated and that not all the details of setting up a milk bank have been worked out.
The ministry has budgeted some NIS 1 million for the establishment of the bank – an amount that will be matched by Magen David Adom.
The bank will initially be established at MDA ’s Jerusalem branch in the Romema neighborhood, but once MDA ’s new National Blood Services Center in Ramle is opened, it will be transferred there.
MDA has significant experience transferring blood units to hospitals around the country and testing them for pathogens before allowing them to be used. Similarly, said Rubin, MDA will be able to supply safe, tested mother’s milk to premature baby units in the hospitals. Donors will not be paid for their effort and contributions.
In 2006, Rubin’s predecessor, Prof. Yona Amitai, introduced the idea of setting up a mother’s milk bank. Five years later, the ministry proposed the idea to MDA , but nothing came of it.
There are groups of ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) women who donate breast milk to other mothers, but these donors are not tested for HIV, hepatitis C and other viral diseases, highlighting the importance of institutionalizing the practice.
Furthermore, various social media networks are used as a forum for communication between breast milk donors and new mothers of premature babies – activity that is not supervised by the health authorities.
“We have not found a way to monitor these activities,” Rubin said. “This is not our purview. There are technical and legal hurdles.”
After would-be donors are tested, hospitals will give donated breast milk free to mothers of premature babies according to a list of priorities. The milk can be stored frozen for up to six months.
“The technicalities have not all been worked out. We don’t yet know how many units are needed. We have not decided whether to provide milk to normal weight full-term babies whose mothers can’t or won’t breastfeed and who are unable to drink formula,” Rubin said.
The milk bank project got a push from the Association for Mother’s Milk Donations, headed by Dr. Sharon Breensburg Tsabari, who will also head the mother’s milk bank.
MK Orly Levy-Abecassis explained the urgent need for a breast milk bank, especially for premature babies: “When it comes to giving birth on time, women can usually decide whether to breastfeed or not. When talking about pre-term premature infants, their digestive system has not yet developed in its entirety, so any milk substitute can be life threatening. In many cases, the mother cannot breastfeed and there is a significant need for replacement breast milk for the baby,” said Levy-Abecassis, who is a mother of four.
“There are now unofficial banks in Israel, and even if it comes from a place of mutual responsibility and social solidarity, this brings with it a very great danger. We do not know where the milk came from, under what conditions it was pumped and stored.
Was the mother healthy? Was the milk clean and well-nourished and healthy for the baby? The time has come for the State of Israel to take responsibility and start acting as a developed country,” she said.
Tsabari added that “Israel is the only OECD country that is unable to guarantee breast milk for babies. This is a basic human right and should be separated from the question of whether the mother can breastfeed or not. World data show that when there is a milk bank, it actually increases the percentage of breastfed infants because women understand the value of their milk.”