Mother’s milk: There’s a thirsty demand for banks
For the past four months, he has visited the hospital to buy human breast milk for his daughter. But he could leave empty-handed unless there’s milk in stock.
As soon as a nurse calls him to confirm the hospital has 10 bottles of breast milk for his infant, he looks better.
“My wife has insufficient milk glands,” Lee says. “The milk we receive from other babies’ mothers through the human milk bank is the only choice we’ve got.”
What about the commercially prepared infant formulas, which can be a nutritious alternative to breast milk?
“She [our daughter] is formula intolerant,” he says, explaining that even one drop of formula leads to repeated vomiting and dehydration.
“My baby cannot live without human milk.”
Lee’s family isn’t the only one benefiting from breast milk donations.
According to Han Sung-hee, a deputy nurse at Injung Hospital, some 200 parents visit for a consultation every month.
But not all are lucky.
“The number of donors is decreasing month by month,” she says. “And we are out of milk.”
The story is no different at other breast milk banks in Korea.
Cha Seung-yoon, a chief director at Incheon Human Milk Bank, says that compared to the 90 donors last year from July to December, only 10 have given so far this year.
“Mothers today are more health-conscious ? they pursue well-being for their babies,” Han says. “And one way is breast feeding.”
But not all mothers can breast feed.
For those with adopted children, insufficient milk glands, premature infants, cancer or have previously undergone plastic surgery on their breasts, breast feeding is not an option.
“People don’t realize that some babies cannot survive on formula, and some mothers can’t provide their own breast milk,” Lee says.
For these infants, survival comes in little clear bottles.
“It is a precious gift indeed,” Lee says.
There are four breast milk banks in Korea ? Injung Hospital, Kyung Hee University, Incheon and Iksan, North Jeolla. The bank at Injung Hospital was the first to open in 2006.
This August marks two years since its founding.
And the response?
“Many doctors are not even aware that breast milk banks exist, so many children that could benefit from donor milk don’t get it,” says Han, the nurse from Injung Hospital.
She is afraid that the hospital will not renew the contract with the bank.
“After all, it isn’t bringing much financial profit to the hospital,” she says, noting that government support is crucial.
“The Ministry of Health and Welfare is ignorant ? they haven’t looked at making guidelines or policies regarding human milk banks,” the nurse says with a sigh. “The government isn’t conducting any research.”
Ahn Seung-seok, an official from the Division of Maternal and Infant Health at the Ministry for Health, Welfare and Family Affairs, said there are policies to increase the low birth rate and breast feeding, but not specifically on maternal milk transactions through human milk banks.
Until last year, The National Medical Center financially supported human milk banks. This year, however, they’ve stopped.
“The reason is simple ? there’s no profit,” she says.
Kim Hae-sook, the founder of all four human milk banks and the president of the Korean Women’s Health Education, holds a different view.
“Human milk banks, in the first place, weren’t established to make money,” Kim says.
“The purpose was to encourage breast feeding ? human milk cannot be replaced ? and donating.”
The breast feeding rate in Korea is 36.7 percent, compared to 56 percent in the United States, according to the World Health Organization.
Kim came across nongovernmental breast milk banks while she was living in the United States for 30 years.
“People donated actively,” she recalled.
Many developed countries around the world have either established donor milk banks or are considering the establishment of such banks.
Many American families are aware of the problems associated with artificial infant formula and the demand for donor milk, especially in cases of an ill or premature infant, Kim says.
There are some 10 donor banks in the United States.
The roots of donor milk banking go back to earlier times when babies were “wet-nursed,” meaning breast-fed by mothers, friends, relatives or strangers.
It is said that in the 13th century, European women made more money working as wet nurses than other occupations available to women.
Early in the 20th century, awareness of the possibility of disease transmission, difficulty in finding wet nurses and an increasing number of artificial formulas resulted in a lack of interest in breast feeding.
Late in the 19th century, the first infant formulas were developed by modifying cow’s milk.
By the mid-20th century, most hospitals and professionals promoted artificial infant formula as the feeding method of choice.
But various groups continued promoting breast feeding with human milk.
Mothers with an abundant milk supply were asked to provide milk for ill infants by either nursing the babies directly or providing milk.
In 1909, the first milk bank was established in Vienna, Austria.
Two additional banks opened in 1919 ? one in Boston, Massachusetts in the U.S. and a second in Germany.
The use of human milk banks is prospering globally, according to Kim’s research. That’s why she introduced the concept two years ago.
“But Koreans aren’t very aware of donating breast milk,” Kim says.
She has another concern: With the spread of Internet blogs, some mothers sell and buy milk directly, which is dangerous.
“Diseases can spread,” Kim says.
During the mid-1980s, milk banks were greatly affected by the growing awareness of HIV/AIDS. People had concerns about the unknown, and many breast milk banks around the world closed down.
But after milk has been pasteurized at a bank, it is safe, Kim says.
After the bank collects a donor’s milk, a nurse transfers it to a glass bottle, then mixes it with milk from a total of three to five donors. The milk is thoroughly mixed to ensure an even distribution of milk components.
Then a nurse transfers batches of the mixed milk into individual bottles.
During pasteurization, the milk is heated in order to eliminate bacteria while retaining the majority of the milk’s beneficial components.
Contaminated milk is discarded.
Milk is now ready for freezing and storage.
“Safety isn’t an issue in pasteurized breast milk,” Kim says.
“Also, rather than government support or advertisements, establishing a donating culture is most crucial.”
With human breast milk banks at stake, some people are asking Kim to promote the banks as a profitable business by charging buyers more money ? that will create a big business. After all, people always need breast milk, they say.
But Kim disagrees.
“It’s the same logic as donating blood,” she says, hoping that there will be more donors in the future. “Nutritious milk is donated only from those who give out of goodwill.”
How to get and give breast milk
Donating milk is simple.
The bank requires that you have a baby younger than 12 months and have time to donate spare milk. Good health conditions are a must: Mothers should be nonsmokers and should not be taking any medications. Both mother and baby should not have a fever or any other symptom of illness.
After you meet the above criteria, the bank will request a health screening. You need to hand in blood test results dated within the last six months, notation of a physician’s consent and provide evidence of a rubella immunization.
Receiving milk, however, requires patience. A nurse conducts a thorough inspection to determine whether a baby is in crucial need of donor milk. The nurse determines where the baby falls on a list of potential recipients.
A 180-milliliter bottle of pasteurized milk costs 3,000 won.
To donate or receive breast milk, contact Milk Station at (02) 537-1490 or visit www.mmbkorea.com.
By Lee Eun-joo Staff Reporter [email@example.com]