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08 Dec, Thursday
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Montreal Families

Is sharing breast milk safe?

After giving birth to twins, Montreal mom Mika Putterman discovered that she couldn’t always produce enough breast milk to satisfy her little ones. But instead of turning to formula, she asked a few friends if they would be willing to share their breast milk. One friend agreed and it gave Putterman a chance to think about what she could do to help others overcome their breastfeeding challenges.

Breast milk is considered the gold standard when it comes to feeding babies. However, if a mom is unable to produce enough milk, or if a baby doesn’t nurse well and is failing to thrive, formula is often the second choice.

In Vancouver, mothers can take advantage of the only human milk bank in Canada, which gives priority to premature and sick infants. Hema-Quebec is looking into the feasibility of opening a milk bank in the province but the results won’t be known until next year.

In the meantime, Putterman decided to use the power of the Internet to connect nursing mothers. She created a website called Montreal Milk Share, which helps match up women seeking milk with those willing to donate it.

Through the website, a representative of Montreal Milk Share gathers information about the age of the baby and where donors or those in need of milk live. Then they put the women in contact with each other. After that, it’s up to the women to discuss the health issues and how the milk will be gathered and stored (it can either be pumped and stored in the refrigerator for eight days or frozen for up to three months). Usually the recipient agrees to pay for the bags needed to store milk and any shipping costs but not for the milk itself.

Putterman says that the women using her site must take certain precautions, as breast milk could possibly contain viruses like HIV and traces of nicotine or alcohol, if a mother smokes or drinks. She advises women to screen potential donors carefully by asking them questions about their lifestyles and asking for results of blood tests. With those precautions, Putterman says it can be safe to share the milk. “I want people to stop being afraid of other people’s breast milk.”

However, some health organizations are wary of informal breast milk sharing networks. Noemie Vanheuverzuijn, the communication representative for Hema-Quebec, says: “We do not approve of milk banks where there is no control,” referring to informal sharing networks like Montreal Milk Share. She says that milk banks run by government health organizations screen donors very carefully and also pasteurize the milk, thus ensuring the highest quality and the least possible risk to an infant.

In November, Health Canada issued an advisory about Milk Sharing, which stated, “Obtaining human milk from the Internet or directly from individuals raises health concerns because, in most cases, medical information about the milk donors is not known.”

The advisory noted that in addition to the risk of HIV and traces of drugs being transmitted, the improper collection, storage and handling of human milk could result in contamination by bacteria or viruses that may cause illness in babies.

But another Montreal mom, Emma Kwasnica, says its time for women to stop depending on institutionalized milk banks as their only source of donated breast milk. Kwasnica has used the power of Facebook to create an international milk-sharing network called Eats on Feets Global (a play on the Meals on Wheels program). Eats on Feets was started by Shell Walker, a Phoenix, Arizona midwife but Kwasnica saw the potential for a worldwide movement. Eats on Feets Global now counts 106 Facebook groups who are helping women share their breast milk. In most cases, the Facebook group asks women to post a message on the group’s Wall asking for or offering a donation. Interested women can then respond.

Kwasnica says that if women ask each other for their blood tests and pasteurize their breast milk, they are not putting their babies as risk of illness by using shared milk. “Let’s put the power in our own hands.”

Safety measures for donated breast milk

The Canadian Pediatric Society has issued a position paper outlining the safety issues around human milk banking. The paper says donors should undergo screening for HIV, hepatitis B and C as well as the human T cell leukemia virus. The milk must be collected and stored in accordance with guidelines set out by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. The milk should be pasteurized.

In 2007, a study done by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, demonstrated that a technique called “flash heating” (in which the breast milk is heated quickly to a high temperature and then cooled) killed any HIV viruses in the milk. Flash heating can be done easily at home.

Both the Montreal Milk Share website, www.montrealmilkshare.org and the Eats on Feets site, www.eatsonfeets.org, have links to sites demonstrating flash heating as well as other information on safely sharing breast milk.

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