On 21 January 2010, the UNICEF issued a statement discouraging breast milk donations:
Human milk donations while safe when processed and pasteurized in a human milk bank also require fully functioning cold chains. Such conditions are not currently met in Haiti and human milk donations cannot be used at present. All queries and any donations that do appear should be directed to UNICEF, the designated nutrition coordinating agency in Haiti.
Then came the International Breast Milk Project and Human Milk Banking Association's calls for breast milk donations. About 500 ounces of milk was couriered on 28 January 2010 to the US Navy's ship called Comfort which was stationed near Haiti. However, this donated milk remains unused to date. Plus, the U.S. Navy spokesman has been promoting the use of infant formula rather than this donated milk!
But the 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.
Comfort has been identified as the world's only nautical milk bank but apparently it is ill-equiped to handle the flood of breast milk donations.
Eager to do something to alleviate the suffering of the smallest, many lactating women are wishing the Comfort had more storage space to handle donated milk. At least one Navy staffer, who had to leave her 10-week-old baby behind when she deployed, was "pumping and dumping" — nursing slang for pumping then discarding milk. Now that there's a use for her milk, she's ferrying it to the ship daily from the mainland, where she is currently working. Beard Irvine has a name for that milk: "Comfort food."It is just sad that instead of addressing the upgrade on the facilities or promoting relactation or cross nursing, Dr. Nune Mangasaryan, senior adviser on infant nutrition for UNICEF, instead promoted the use of ready to drink formula and this is despite the joint statement issued by WHO, UNICEF and WFP discouraging the donation and use of breastmilk substitutes or formula.
The Philippines faced a similar disaster (Ondoy and Parma) in October 2009. We were also involved in breastfeeding missions and brought donated, pasteurized breast milk in coolers to evacuation sites. But as I previously shared, out of the 15 liters (about 507 fl. oz.) of milk we brought, only 1.5 liters (50.72 fl. oz.) were used up. We wanted to leave the unused milk there but the health workers told us that they had no facility to keep the milk cool and prevent spoilage. So we ended up lugging it back to the milk bank.
Dr. Mangasaryan: At this point what we recommend for them is ready-to-use infant formula, that's already in a liquid form, meaning no risk of contamination by mixing powdered formula with water, for example. It's already ready-to-use, and there are certain numbers already available in the country.
I learned that in times of calamaties such as this, what is more important or useful would not be breast milk donations but rather breastfeeding information - relactating, switch nursing, protection of milk supply, encouragement. As fellow LATCHer Mec also shared, sharing of strategies, loot bags and the use of wet nurses were also particularly useful.
I'm not saying that moms with extra milk should stop donating milk. Even without calamities, milk banks are continuously asking for donations. In fact, every time I call up the PGH Milk Bank, they always excitedly ask me if I have extra milk to give. Moms should continue to donate milk but just have an expectation that their milk may not be directed towards Haiti but to other needy babies within their locality. I'm not sure if it is feasible in evacuation centers in Haiti but instead on focusing on calls for milk donations or promoting ready-to-drink formula, maybe international organizations can instead focus in information drive with strategies, tips and tricks on relactating and the promotion of direct breastfeeding.