Health: `Donated breast milk saved my baby's life'

Breast milk can save the lives of premature babies. But if you can't provide it, you'd better hope that you live near one of a handful of milk banks.

Emily Rees weighed just over 1lb when she was born 12 weeks prematurely in 1997. She was as tall as a Barbie doll, with hands the size of adult thumbnails. Her head was no bigger than a golf ball. "It was like holding a baby bird," recalls her mother, 32-year-old Maria Rees, who lives in Hounslow.

At the time, she was the smallest newborn ever to survive. Hailed as a miracle baby, she received plenty of media attention. But one of the most significant factors contributing to her survival was never celebrated. She was fed exclusively on breast milk, much of it supplied by donors.

Breast milk is best, for all babies, but it is especially beneficial for low-birth-weight, premature infants. It can make the difference between life and death. "These babies," says Dr Tony Williams, a consultant paediatrician at St George's Hospital, London, "have severely under-developed guts, lungs and brains, because the most rapid period of growth takes place in the last few months of a normal pregnancy. It appears that human milk promotes development and growth in ways that we don't yet understand."

A recent study concluded that if all babies in the UK's neonatal units had access to human milk, 100 lives a year could be saved. "The death rate among formula-fed babies," adds Dr Williams, "is six-to-10-fold greater. Trials have shown that when fed human milk, babies are less prone to serious infections." These include septicaemia, meningitis, pneumonia and, the biggest killer, a disease of the gut called necrotising enterocolitis.

And yet there are just 13 milk banks in this country, mainly in the South- east, so many neonatal units are forced to rely on formula feeding. "It's an absolute scandal," says Gillian Weaver, vice-chair of the United Kingdom Association for Milk Banking. "It's like saying, `Oh, your baby was born in Cornwall and we don't have antibiotics there, so tough.' It's so unfair. And not just for the babies and their families. There are countless women who would love to donate - I should know, I get enough phone calls from them - but they just don't live near enough to the few milk banks we have."

The women who do manage to donate do so mainly for altruistic reasons. They may have previously had a premature baby, and want to give something back to the system. "But, says Ms Weaver, "any woman who is healthy, producing plenty of milk, is a non-smoker and will under-go a blood test, can become a donor."

The blood test is to screen for diseases such as Aids, syphilis and hepatitis. The discovery that HIV can be passed on through breast milk led to strict new government guidelines in 1989, heralding the decline of UK milk banks. But screening and pasteurisation ensure that there is now no risk of infection. "It appears," says Ms Weaver, "that the major obstacle nowadays is ignorance. I still meet paediatricians who say `milk banks no longer exist'. This just isn't true. But we do need more of them, particularly larger ones that can supply greater geographical areas."

"I wasn't worried about the HIV testing. I haven't led a racy life," says Alice Harlan, 22, from Hammersmith, who has donated milk for three months since the birth of her daughter Martha. "I'm a Quaker. It's important to me to do things for people in need. I had an easy pregnancy and birth and wanted to help women who had a less easy time."

Alice soon realised that she too could benefit. "I express 100ml a day. It takes five minutes. I keep half back and freeze it for my daughter. The great thing is that the milk bank tests each batch for bacteria and will tell me if there's anything wrong with it. When I start teacher-training college next week, I'll know that the milk I've stored for Martha is fine."

"I'm just so grateful to these women," says Maria Rees. "I just wish more women knew they could help. I expressed my own milk for Emily for six weeks. She was fed through tubes. But it's so difficult. I felt like a cow in a dairy. Instead of a guzzling baby there was just the swish of the machine while I gazed at Emily's photographs."

Like many women in her extremely stressful situation, she found that her own supply dried up. Other mothers are too ill to feed their babies. They may be recovering from surgery, or have cancer and be undergoing chemotherapy. Some have older children to care for, and live too far away from the neonatal unit. In a few sad cases, the baby's mother may have died.

Maria Rees urges women to donate milk, as she is convinced that it saved her daughter's life.

"The doctors worked so hard with Emily," she recalls. "At times, she was dying. They fought to bring her back and donor milk kept her going. Look at her now, a happy, cheeky, normal little girl. I could win the lottery, and it wouldn't make our lives any better."

WHY WE SHOULD INVEST IN MILK BANKS

Low birth-rate human milk-fed babies spend less time in intensive care than those fed formula.

Babies who are breast-fed for the first 15 weeks are half as likely to suffer respiratory illnesses as those given bottles.

Breast milk is being investigated as a possible treatment for cancer. Research has shown that a protein in the milk actually kills off lung cancer cells, while normal cells are unchanged.

The UK got its first milk bank in 1935 to help feed the first surviving set of quadruplets.

Studies suggest that breast-fed babies go on to perform better at school.

In Britain, 66 per cent of infants are breast-fed at birth.

In 1986 there were 70 milk banks in the UK. Now there are just 13.

For more information send a SAE to UKAMB, Queen Charlotte's & Chelsea Hospital, Goldhawk Rd, London W6 0XG; www.science-network.com/ukam/

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