Gender-based violence

Thuthuzela Care Centres


ithemba Lethu breast milk bank

© UNICEF/South Africa/Jantilal
Quincy Jones, American celebrity philanthropist greets young volunteers at iThemba Lethu during a visit to the project.

Breast milk bank provides hope for HIV+ babies

Orphaned babies, many of whom are HIV-positive, are getting more than basic love and shelter at a home in South Africa's port city of Durban. They are also receiving the gift of Immune boosting breast milk donated by a network of mothers in the city. The mothers voluntarily express the milk their own babies do not need, and it is then collected and taken to iThemba Lethu, meaning "I have a destiny" in isiZulu, a transitional home for babies who have been orphaned or abandoned through HIV/AIDS. Not all have the HI virus, but most are very neglected and malnourished when they arrive.

Coordinator Shirley Royal said that the home, which cares for six babies at a time, combines a family environment, stimulation and good nutrition to help them recover while plans are made for them to be reunited with their family, or placed with another family.

“Preventing Mother To Child Transmission  the single biggest intervention to dramatically reduce under five morality rate (U5MR) and the number of orphans in South Africa the next decade…” Medical Research Council

Aware of research demonstrating that breast milk boosts a baby's immune levels, the founder of the breast milk bank, paediatrics professor Dr. Anna  Coutsoudis, asked four friends, one of whom was Royal, to donate excess breast milk for an ailing baby that the home had just taken in.

"It was an incredible thing to be part of," said Royal. "The baby went from being very malnourished to thriving."

As the HI virus can be passed through breast milk, and more babies started coming into the home, they conducted research on techniques used by overseas breast milk banks and looked to local blood banks for guidance on screening prospective donors.

They were given an industrial pasteuriser, which enabled them to eliminate the HI virus and other viruses like hepatitis and syphilis, as well as donations of breast pumps and small plastic containers for the milk.

Royal says that while pasteurisation - a heat treatment - removes many of the good qualities of breast milk, the milk is still beneficial and "better than no breast milk".

The project relies on technical support and some funding from UNICEF to cover some costs.  It also depends on good will and word of mouth. Donors to the breast milk bank are not paid.  The bank does not always have adequate supplies - four donor mothers are
needed to supply one baby, so HIV positive babies have priority.

"We go to moms' groups and chat to them about the project. We screen prospective donors with a questionnaire [covering health and lifestyle] and then teach them how to store the milk. Because breast milk matures with a baby, we try to match milk from a mother with a two-month old baby, with a baby of the same age at the home. It's not always possible, but the breast milk they get is better than none at all," she said.



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