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Banking breast milk to save lives

A mother breastfeeds one of her twin babies at Jose Fabella Medical hospital in Manila, Philippines
(Jason Gutierrez/IRIN)

The Philippine government's state-run breast milk bank is intensifying collection efforts to boost breastfeeding among the poor and help women return to work immediately after giving birth if they want to do so.

Hundreds of women come to have their babies at the Jose Fabella Memorial Hospital, the busiest maternity institution in Manila, the capital, where more than 12 million people live. Many women are barely able to afford even the minimal payment, and to help cover their costs some of them donate breast milk to the hospital’s milk bank, which is used to feed babies whose mothers have lactation problems.

Esmeraldo Ilem, head of the hospital's family planning unit, said the milk is also sold at up to US$10 for four litres to other hospitals and individuals, with mothers as a first priority. “Even hospitals in far-flung areas or provinces come here to buy milk from us," Ilem told IRIN. "[For instance,] when a mother dies in a hospital [where there is no milk bank, the family] comes here to source the milk."

Nurses ask for donations to the hospital's breast milk bank, where it is pasteurized and refrigerated. Ilem said milk from the Jose Fabella Memorial Hospital also helps working mothers give their babies breast milk after returning to work. The hospital started its bank in 2007, but since then at least two other facilities in the capital have opened milk banks.

A recent study by the government's Food and Nutrition Research Institute showed that exclusive breastfeeding - giving babies only breast milk for the first six months of life, which boosts their immunity to childhood diseases - has risen from 36 percent in 2008 to 47 percent in 2011 in the Philippines. Breastfeeding a baby within one hour of being born, which has also been proven to reduce infant deaths, increased from 32 percent in 2008 to 52 percent in 2011.

However, there are "disparities in exclusive breastfeeding rates" in different parts of the country and further effort is needed to increase breastfeeding so as to reduce infant mortality. "Human milk or breast milk is the best way to make babies healthy in the early stages of life,” said Ilem. "Sadly... there are many mothers who need to go back to work or do not lactate very well, so this is where our milk comes in."

Milk codes

A 2009 law on breastfeeding protects a woman’s right to breastfeed publicly, and requires private as well as public companies to allot time for breastfeeding. All public institutions have to provide lactation stations separate from bathrooms.

Since 1986, Executive Order 51, known locally as the "Milk Code", has prohibited the advertising of infant formula for infants under two years old.

But these gains are at risk, according to the Trade Union Congress of the Philippines (TUCP), one of the country's largest labour associations, which has warned that the infant formula lobby may have persuaded lawmakers to promote legislation seeking to reverse the breastfeeding law.

"If this happens then we may end up with more unhealthy babies," warned TUCP spokesman Alan Tanjusay, who said his group is prepared to fight the proposed legislation. "This is where the importance of milk banks also comes in - they provide alternatives for sourcing human milk for all our babies."


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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