Breast milk bank needs more ‘deposits’

The Chinese mainland's first breast milk bank is facing the challenges of attracting regular donors and obtaining funding to cover increasing costs.

   The bank, based in the Guangzhou Women and Children's Medical Center in south China's Guangdong Province, officially opened in May after a two-month trial operation period.
   By end of the month, 109 new mothers had registered to donate their breast milk, which will be used to feed babies in the medical center who are sick, premature or malnourished.
   "Breast milk isn't just food for sick babies, but is also a form of medical treatment or even a type of first aid in some cases," said Liu Xihong, the bank co-founder.
   An infant surnamed Jiang who suffers from an intestinal fistula was one of eight babies who have benefited from the bank.
   The 10-month-old was severely malnourished and weighed just 5.5 kg when he was admitted to hospital. But with the help of donated breast milk, he gained 1.65 kgs in two weeks. Doctors credit the milk for saving his life.
   The first donor milk bank in the world was founded in Vienna in 1909. After a century of development, there are now around 200 milk banks in Europe along, as well as 12 banks in North America.
   Liu paid a visit to the United States to learn how breast milk banks there were being operated before founding the Guangzhou bank.
   Despite its effectiveness and the need for such an establishment in China, establishing the bank was not easy.
   Liu, who is also director of the medical center's department of clinical nutrition, conducted a survey that indicated that few new mothers were willing to donate.
   The survey of 300 people showed that only 25 percent of respondents were willing to donate their extra breast milk. Only 18 percent said they would accept donated breast milk for their infants.
   Liu then decided to approach new mothers in the hospital, asking for donations face-to-face. Every single one of them turned her down.
   It was Xu Liang, a popular local radio presenter, who helped her out of her predicament. Xu donated the first bottle of breast milk on March 20 and has continued to promote the cause via her radio show and her microblog.
   "My husband encouraged me to donate my breast milk. He is a regular blood donor," said 29-year-old He Jieying, who was the bank's 100th registered donor.
   The woman said her two-month-old baby girl usually can't finish what she has produced, adding that she feels it is a waste to throw the milk away.
   According to the bank's rules, all donors must provide physical examination results before donating milk and volunteers are required to pump their milk at the bank.
   The milk is disinfected and frozen after being donated. Nurses label every bottle with information such as the donor's name, the time of the donation and the amount.
   Mothers donate milk for free at the bank. The milk is then provided to the babies at no cost after both attending doctors and dieticians sign a prescription.
   Each of the 100 babies at the center that need milk consume 300 to 400 ml of milk every day, which adds up to 40 liters daily, Liu said.
   But the bank only receives one liter of donated milk every day on average, creating a large supply-and-demand gap.
   "One of the problems is that not all of our registered volunteers come back to donate on a regular basis," Liu said.
   Around two-thirds of the donors come just once. Only a dozen or so have donated more than three times.
   "We can't accept refrigerated milk or milk that is processed without our supervision. We have to make sure that every bottle of donor milk is 100 percent safe," she stressed.
   But it's difficult for working mothers to visit the bank often. Each donation can take up to 40 minutes, not including travel time.
   Another challenge facing the bank is a lack of funding.
   All the bank's materials are disinfected and disposable and their quality meets the highest medical standards. These supplies are also very expensive and donors are not permitted to share equipment. The hospital also provides physical examinations, which usually cost several hundred yuan, to donors for free, Liu said.
   Since there are currently no laws or regulations concerning the management of breast milk banks in China, Liu's bank can only offer milk to patients for free. The bank relies on the financial support of the medical center and public donations. So far, it has received donations totaling 62,000 US dollars.
   "There are no existing examples to follow in the country. But we will not be able to keep it running for much longer without sustainable financial support," she said.
   According to the Ministry of Health, China's breastfeeding rate was around 67 percent in 2008, far lower than the goal of 85 percent set in the National Action Program for Child Development in China (2001-2010).
   The decline in breastfeeding over the last 10 years has posed challenges for the development of breast milk banks.
   Liu believes that the key to establishing more banks in China is to encourage more mothers to breastfeed.
   She said she hopes milk banks will eventually be established in hospitals and cities across China. (Xinhua)