Late last week the several health agencies issued a statement calling for a halt to the breastmilk shipments being sent to Haiti, and a Navy spokesman indicated that milk sent for use aboard the USS Comfort hasn't been used.
Time Magazine reports:
Through a complicated chain of communication involving various members of Congress, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and breast-feeding organizations galore, the Human Milk Banking Association of North America (HMBANA) dispatched two coolers' worth of donated breast milk to Haitian preemies being cared for on the U.S.S. Comfort, the floating hospital anchored near Port-au-Prince. "The fact that there is a doctor on board this ship who understands the importance of breast milk is just amazing," says Amanda Nickerson, executive director of the International Breast Milk Project, which arranged the shipment of 140 3-oz. bottles of milk. Quick International Courier, a New York City–based firm that specializes in out-of-the-ordinary cargo, handled as a pro bono matter the delivery, which involved dry ice and rapid-fire transfers between Southwest Airlines, a charter flight and finally a military helicopter.
The HMBANA cargo supplements what is likely the world's only nautical milk bank. When one of the pediatricians on board the Comfort, Dr. Erika Beard Irvine, realized that she had only three cases of formula upon arrival, she connected with breast-feeding Navy moms who had deployed and didn't know what to do with their breast milk. Beard Irvine is storing their pumped milk in the ship's freezers and feeding it to the babies under her care, including one preemie born on board.
...In the U.S., milk banks rigorously screen donors, then pasteurize, process and freeze their milk before distribution. When it's shipped to sick babies across the country, it's nestled in dry ice. Unrefrigerated, breast milk — like cow's milk — turns rancid.
That's why the World Health Organization, UNICEF and the United Nations World Food Programme issued a joint statement Jan. 21 that the necessary infrastructure isn't yet in place to utilize donated breast milk on the Haitian mainland.
But the staff on the U.S. Navy ship [Comfort] 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.
I understand why it doesn't make sense to send donor milk to the mainland at this point, but I'm a little confused about why donations sent to the Comfort can't be used. The babies aboard the Comfort must be at at least a high a risk of potentially fatal complications like necrotizing enterocolitis as babies in the U.S. (see this video on how breastmilk prevents it, and this post on the cost of treating a case). Then again, maybe I shouldn't be too surprised. There are plenty of U.S. hospitals that don't use donor milk in the NICUs, and an emergency is probably a difficult time to convince people of its safety and value.
I also hope that this doesn't put a damper on the resurgence of interest in donor milk banking. Our milk banks have been experiencing a decline in donations due to H1N1, and they are still needed in many areas to help domestic hospitals care for their premature and critically ill patients.