The promise of breast milk bank

Through history, a woman plays a big role in society. Forget how she cooks, or drive. Sometimes she takes months off work and get labelled ‘house wife’ because taking care of children untill they reach a certain age while rearing a cat on the side is her priority. She is comfortable in her skin. She knows how to hold her baby. She is a good woman… With all the good things, there are flaws and gaps. Try to picture children who are born prematurely, perhaps the mother delivered through emergency caesarean and not able to produce milk. Or, those babies whose mothers fail to see light of the day. Such a baby’s life usually hung by a thread, with many dying due to lack of breast milk as their digestive system is not developed enough to accept formula, or the alternative. They are delicate… begging the question, would you express milk? Or, would you buy milk from a bank? While people donate blood, and even sperms for artificial insemination, stories of breast milk donation never feature in gatherings (and are mostly done privately), yet the life saving value of it is quite clear. In some cases, especially in remote parts of the country, when a mother passes on immediately after delivery or when a mother is too ill to lactate, it is a big gamble to help the child. As always the case, such a baby would be handed to an elderly woman who is expected to breastfeed him or her, a terrible thing taking place mostly in villages. It is against this backdrop that breast-feeding is the guaranteed way of enabling infants to grow free of infections and disease. “While women in rural and urban settings are faced with varied circumstances regarding breastfeeding due to the complexity of their situations, they are faced with a shared dilemma of resuming work shortly after delivery and work for long hours so as to make a living, leaving them unable to breastfeed optimally,” says the First Lady of West Pokot County Josephine Kachapin when condemning poverty, livelihood and living arrangements as major obstacles to breastfeeding during a Scientific Conference on Breastfeeding themed, Breastfeeding: A Key to Good Nutrition and Wellbeing. Mrs Kachapin adds women from her region use cow, goat or sheep milk when dry of breast milk to feed months’ old babies. And it is even more emotional to hear how some babies devour water (brown, dirty water) because their mum had no food to eat but also breast milk. Breastfeeding is an issue that is eliciting mixed reactions so much that health practitioners at a recent eye opening conference rejected overtures that supplements should crowd out breast milk especially in hardship areas where women cannot afford to breastfeed, arguing that converting breast milk bank ambition into reality is the one thing that will do more good than harm. Although the experts identified early marriages and single motherhood, poor social and professional support, low knowledge, myths and misconceptions, HIV and AIDS as the main challenges, how Kenyans can ride on breast milk bank to help such vulnerable, and dark cases, is the last thing needed. When you decide to have children it means you are ready to bring them up, and to do so, the most important thing you need is breast milk, they argue. And, they wondered, if children are not feeding on breasts, what are they feeding on? South Africa runs a successful breast milk bank. South African Breast Milk Reserve (SABR) in Johannesburg runs a total of 44 milk banks feeding thousands of babies. Women with a lot of milk can go and donate, or those who are too sick to suckle their babies can go and get the same from the bank. There is a big demand for human breast milk in the country partly because of maternal deaths during births as well as mothers being too sick to lactate. It was as a result of high number of premature deaths – a premature baby dies every 20 minutes in South Africa as indicated on SABR website – that the country invested in human milk bank, interestingly a move which has delivered modest returns. Kids no longer die at an early age due to lack of milk as formulas are important at some point but it must be known that breast milk is the best so much that deny babies breast milk and see how things will fall apart. The potential of human breast milk is understood not only in South Africa but also in North America where professional association for supporters of non-profit donor human milk banking like HMBANA (Human Milk Banking Association of North America) thrive. In Kenya, a country rife with perceptions and traditions of old, there is still need for serious champions of breastfeeding, it seems. Starting a breast milk bank carried the day. Though happening miles away, Kenyans can borrow a leaf from these countries where the initiative has worked to help those women who cannot breastfeed locally. Issues clouding the whole subject, like negative perceptions – buying other people’s milk is a new thing to many – can be stemmed by women coming together to share knowledge on nutrition, childcare and best practices in breastfeeding through breastfeeding support groups. Professor Fredrick Were, Dean Faculty of Medicine at The University of Nairobi, strongly believes that exclusive breastfeeding during first six months of an infant’s life is best and has created a number of initiatives to raise awareness on the importance of right nutrition in the first 1,000 days of life.

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