Well Being

Breast Milk Donation Backlash in Haiti

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The Human Milk Banking Association of North America (HMBANA) reportedly has been asked to retract its urgent call for breast milk donations for premature infants in Haiti. The Emergency Nutrition Network (ENN) says the donations contradict best practices for babies in emergencies and the Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA) said the donations create an “unfeasible and unsafe intervention” due to problems of transportation, screening, supply and storage, according to the MSNBC article “Call for Donations of Breast Milk in Haiti Goes Bust.” Time also asks “Will Donating Breast Milk Help Haitian infants?

I have nothing but respect and deference for the ENN and the experienced relief agencies on the ground in Haiti. The breastfeeding activist community understands that breastfeeding, relactation, and wet nurses are the short-term and the long-term, sustainable methods of infant feeding after such a disaster. That being said, I am going to dig my heels in on this issue of breast milk donation and say, respectfully, “CHILL people!” Several points come to mind:

1. No one is talking about donating milk to be sent willy-nilly throughout Haiti. Of course that would be unfeasible and contrary to best practices, just as such a donation of artificial baby milk would be. So far we're talking about a small donation to a controlled facility aboard a US Navy ship. Beyond that, HMBANA says it wants “to be prepared to provide donor milk if UNICEF, the Red Cross, WHO or other international organizations involved on the front lines were to contact us.”

2. Concerns about screening and distribution and storage are unfounded. The milk that has been sent already was screened by the HMBANA and again, distributed to one location.

3. The statements by the ENN and OFDA are having some very unfortunate consequences. “[T]he staff on the U.S. Navy ship said they haven't used the milk out of concerns raised by OFDA and other agencies. Mothers aboard the Comfort are urged to nurse their own babies and there’s infant formula available to children whose mothers cannot or will not breast-feed, said Lt. David Shark, a U.S. Navy spokesman.” (emphasis mine). Are other people smacking their heads right now? “There's infant formula available to children whose mothers cannot or will not breast-feed.” Screened donor human milk is far better for those children than infant formula!

4. There is an urgent need for donations of human milk to the non-profit HMBANA milk banks for premature and sick babies right here in the United States and in Canada. I'm just going to come right out and say it: the call for milk donations was a way to raise awareness about that need and boost donations to benefit babies here. The call for milk donations for Haiti, and the subsequent updated press release, made it quite clear that much of the donated milk will be used to benefit babies right here in the United States and Canada.

5. In light of the backlash against the donations, perhaps it was not the best idea to use the disaster in Haiti to call attention to the shortage of donated human milk at the HMBANA milk banks, but it would have been nice had the relief agencies taken the opportunity to respond to the call with a carefully worded response instead of a thanks-but-no-thanks that amounts to a slap in the face. Either some key quotes were left out of the MSNBC article, or the ENN, OFDA, and the American Red Cross missed an opportunity to talk about the importance of breastfeeding and relactation in an emergency, the dire need for human milk donations in the United States and Canada, and the danger that donations of artificial baby milk pose in Haiti.