MANILA, Philippines – Ever heard of milk banks? Who goes there?
Human milk banks collect, process, and store breast milk for vulnerable babies:
- Infants in neonatal intensive care units
- Motherless infants
- Infants with seriously ill mothers or mothers incapable of breastfeeding
The milk comes from healthy lactating mothers who donate their excess supply.
In the Philippines, there are only a few pioneer government hospitals operating milk banks: the Philippine Children’s Medical Center (1996), the Dr Jose Fabella Memorial Hospital (2008), the Philippine General Hospital (2009), and the Unicef-funded milk bank of the Zamboanga City Medical Center (2013).
In March 2013, the Philippines saw its first and only LGU-run (local government unit) milk bank – the Makati Human Milk Bank (MHMB). A year later, it continues to help mothers and infants within and beyond the city.
The World Health Organization (WHO) encourages exclusive breastfeeding for the first 6 months of life, and breastfeeding with complementary feeding up to two years or more. (WATCH: Help kids reach their 5th birthday)
Breastfed babies are more likely to grow up into healthy adults.
Unfortunately, many babies are still left unfed – either because of illness or indifference. (READ: Why you should care about breastfeeding)
Other institutions, like St. Luke’s Hospital, have “lactation units” which educate both parents about the importance of breastfeeding, and support those experiencing breastfeeding difficulties. Some non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and barangays (villages) also conduct breastfeeding campaigns, classes, and support groups. (READ: Make breastfeeding work for you)
The city of Makati not only provides information, but also milk.
MHMB provides breast milk for preterm babies or those born prematurely. Pregnancy usually lasts for around 40 weeks, but these babies are born after less than 37 weeks.
The bank provides 3 services:
- Collection: Potential donors are thoroughly screened
- Processing: Pasteurization and safety tests
- Storage: Specialized bottles, refrigerators, freezers, storage units
Not everyone can donate. Interested donors undergo interviews, background checks (medical history), medical tests (blood and laboratory tests, tuberculosis and syphilis screening), and counselling.
Donors must be healthy and currently nursing a less than 1-year-old baby.
Smokers, alcoholics, and those who test positive for HIV, Hepatitis B, and illegal drugs are not qualified.
“We counsel them on why there’s a need to donate, and on where their milk goes,” Roni Garcia, MHMB nurse and project head, explained.
“We’re not asking moms to donate in bulk or in long-term. One-time donation is enough. More importantly, it should be voluntary.”
MHMB reminds donors that “regular breastfeeding stimulates mammary glands of lactating mothers to produce abundant supplies of breast milk,” so they need not worry about running out of supply for their own babies after donating.
The bank uses mechanical and electrical breast pumps to collect milk. It follows the WHO standard of operations, and is the country’s first milk bank to have a fully-computerized system.
Walk-in sessions last for only 20-30 minutes. Donors are asked to wear hospital gowns and are taught how to clean their breasts before the procedure. Each mother can produce up to 600 ml of milk per session, and if properly processed, its shelf life can last up to a year.
The MHMB team also conducts home and health center visits in case donors are unable to visit the bank. It also partners with hospitals like Ospital ng Makati (OsMak).
Garcia said that most of their donors are from the National Capital Region and nearby areas like Cavite. “But if there are donors outside NCR, we’ll find a way to reach them,” Garcia added.
The milk undergoes laboratory tests before and after pasteurization. Without proper processing, transportation, and storage, the milk might get contaminated – which is why MHMB is very strict with its procedures.
On average, MHMB gets 60-80 donors per week. However, not all donors pass the qualifications.
MHMB also conducts an annual one-day milk drive every August – the national breastfeeding month – where over 200 mothers come together to donate breast milk.
The bank was launched by Makati Mayor Jejomar “Junjun” Binay Jr after the death of his wife in 2013. “This facility brings up our community-based breastfeeding advocacy. Mothers will have the chance to save lives,” Binay said in a statement.
MHMB stresses that their milk is not only for Makati babies, but for all vulnerable babies.
Since MHMB is only in its early stages of operation; for now, it prioritizes premature babies. Since their bodies are not fully developed, they are more vulnerable to infections.
All infants need breast milk, but premature babies need it even more. MHMB plans to expand its coverage in the future.
To qualify, the baby must be admitted in a hospital. Their guardians must provide necessary documents (i.e., pediatric prescription, clinical abstract, mom’s death certificate).
“Without guidelines, everyone – even healthy and capable moms – might get milk from the bank, discouraging them from breastfeeding,” Garcia said.
Before requests are approved, the bank checks whether the mother is really incapable or only unaware of proper breastfeeding. MHMB counsels and teaches them lactation massages which stimulate breast milk.
“Some mothers think they don’t have any or enough milk. That’s wrong. Food intake can affect how much milk you produce, but you still produce milk if breasts are properly stimulated,” Garcia clarified. This is why proper breastfeeding positioning is important.
“As babies grow, their stomachs develop. Stomach size is in tune with the mom’s milk production. So moms shouldn’t worry about not having enough milk,” she added.
She emphasized, however, that stress can disrupt milk production.
On average, MHMB provides milk to about 28 babies across 14 hospitals per month. “Operation isn’t full blast yet, but we’re aiming to improve,” she added.
The milk is not free.
MHMB charges a P2/ml processing fee; each bottle is 120 ml (P240). MHMB’s fees are patterned after the Philippine Children’s Medical Center.
Makati residents get a 10% discount, while those admitted in Osmak are free of charge.
It also charges a P150 deposit fee to purchase the specialized milk bottle, but the fee is reimbursed and the bottles are kept in the bank after the procedure.
The bottles actually cost P500/each. Normal bottles cannot be used during processing; otherwise, the nutrients will not be intact.
Garcia warned mothers against buying breast milk from online donors – an emerging trend. “We don’t know if the milk is safe, if it’s pasteurized.”
“You can bring the milk to us, we’ll screen and process for P35/ounce. This is what some working moms do,” she added.
She also shared the story of how a mother pumped milk while inside a toilet cubicle because her company did not have a lactation station. “This is unsanitary.”
The Expanded Breastfeeding Promotion Act of 2009 or Republic Act 10028 requires establishments, including workplaces, to have lactation stations separate from bathrooms.
The Philippines also has a Milk Code which promotes breastfeeding.
The future of milk
MHMB is primarily manned by 3 women: one nurse and two midwives. The key to the bank’s success, they said, is passion.
Aside from the three, they also have two nutritionists, a doctor, and two medical technologists.
Milk banks are also useful during times of emergencies or disasters. After Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan), milk banks like the MHMB donated breast milk for the survivors.
“In the long run, we aim for an inter-city collaboration,” the team said. They hope for other LGUs to follow suit.
However, among many LGUs, budget remains a problem. Maintenance and operating costs are manageable, but the initial investment can reach millions because of the expensive imported processing equipment.
Garcia hopes that the country can invest more in the Department of Science and Technology (DOST), so that it can help produce affordable milk bank equipment.
Aside from funding, Garcia said that the problem may also be “political.”
“Some LGU leaders don’t want to accept our help [regarding milk banks] because they don’t like the Binays or they belong to a different party,” Garcia said. She hopes that LGUs can learn to let go of these petty reasons, and instead, just focus on the bigger goal.
The end goal is simple: save more infants, assure a healthy future for the Philippines
“We need to popularize it. It’s just like blood donation, but it’s milk,” Garcia said. – Rappler.com
Interested donors and recipients may contact the Makati Human Milk Bank (MHMB) at 0927-561-9889 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. You may also visit their Facebook.
MHMB is located at the 4th floor of the Bangkal Health Center at E. Rodriguez Avenue in Barangay Bangkal, Makati City. You may visit their office for inquiries or for walk-in sessions.
Do you know of other ways we can help alliviate hunger? Does your LGU have similar projects? Let us know. Send your ideas, articles, research and video materials to email@example.com. Be part of the #HungerProject.