First human breast milk bank opens in Africa

BMJ 2011; 343 doi: (Published 12 August 2011) Cite this as: BMJ 2011;343:d5179
  1. Tiago Villanueva
  1. 1 Lisbon

Brazil is sponsoring one of Africa’s first human breast milk banks to help the island of Cape Verde meet its millennium development goal on cutting the infant mortality rate.

The latest figures from the Ministry of Health show that the island’s infant mortality rate was 20.1 per 1000 in 2009, with 262 deaths in infants up to 11 months and 47 deaths in children between 1 and 4 years.

The milk bank, which was launched on 1 August in Agostinho Neto Hospital, in Praia, is the result of a technical and scientific cooperation agreement between the governments of Brazil and Cape Verde.

The hospital has facilities for collecting, pasteurising, and freezing the milk, which can be stored for up to six months. Supplies will come from local women, who will not be paid. They will have either given birth at the hospital or be volunteers who have responded to awareness campaigns. It could also deploy a method commonly used in Brazil, whereby fire fighters collect milk from donors at home.

“The milk bank is expected to have a direct impact in the reduction of the infant mortality rate in Cape Verde and in the decrease of the HIV/AIDS mother-child transmission index,” Paula Rougemont, technical coordinator for Cape Verde, for the Brazilian Agency for Cooperation, which is funding the initiative, told the BMJ.

Dr João Aprígio, coordinator of the African and Ibero-American Program of Human Milk Banks, told the BMJ that the milk would cater in particular to “children admitted to neonatal intensive care, especially those who are premature and low weight, and whose mothers either can’t breastfeed or have a clinical reason such as HIV that prevents them from supplying milk that the child needs.”

Neonatologist Israel Macedo, coordinator of Portugal’s only human milk bank at Alfredo da Costa Maternity Hospital in Lisbon, said that the initiative “will significantly reduce the number of cases of gastroenteritis, which are a leading cause of child mortality in Africa.”

Ministry of Health figures show that infectious and parasitic disease accounted for 17.5% of all deaths in children under 5 years in Cape Verde in 2009.

A second human milk bank is expected to be up and running in early 2012 in São Vicente, another island in Cape Verde, and Mozambique and Angola are set to open similar facilities over the course of the next year.

“Brazil has almost 30 years’ experience with milk banks, and currently has the largest and most complex human milk bank network in the world, with 202 milk banks in operation, serving about 155 000 premature and low weight newborns every year”, said Dr Aprígio.

Meanwhile the US based International Breast Milk Project has delivered 5000 ounces (142 litres) of donor breast milk from Monrovia, California, to Cape Town, South Africa, this week. The shipment, the fifth so far to Cape Town, is destined for premature, sick, and orphaned infants.

According to the project, one in three women aged 25-29 in South Africa is living with HIV, reducing the number of eligible donors in the area able to supply milk through a local donor bank.

Alan Horn of the Groote Schuur Hospital in Cape Town, said “I firmly believe that the practice of milk banking is still in its infancy, globally, and especially in South Africa. Donating breast milk is an act that involves the least pain and the most gain, compared to any other human tissue or organ donation. It is potentially lifesaving and is worth more than equipment or staff.”


Cite this as: BMJ 2011;343:d5179

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