• Human milk has the potential to prevent over 823,000 deaths in children under five in developing world
• South Africa's human milk bank has helped more than 10,000 babies since its inception in 2003
The recently launched breast milk bank at Pumwani Maternity Hospital is a welcome move in the fight against neonatal deaths.
Kenya is grappling with a high number of newborn deaths, 22 per 1,000 live births. This means that at least one in every 45 neonates born in Kenya dies within the first 28 days of life (Kenya Demographic and Health Survey 2014).
Data from Unicef and the World Health Organization further indicate that the country is losing 40,000 babies annually in the first month of life, mainly due to high prematurity rate and low birth weight. This therefore means that there is an urgent need to focus on a healthy start to life for babies if these deaths are to be reduced.
Human milk has the greatest impact on child survival. So impactful is this “white gold” that it has the potential to prevent over 823,000 deaths (13 per cent of all deaths) in children under five in the developing world (Lancet 2016).
WHO and Unicef both agree that early (immediately the baby is born) and exclusive breastfeeding helps children to not only survive, but it also supports healthy brain development, improves cognitive performance and is associated with better educational achievement and protects children against diseases.
About 80 per cent of Kenyan women interviewed indicated they would donate their breast milk to a human milk bank, and 60 per cent said they would allow their children to be fed with the milk
Moreover, breastfed children have at least six times greater chance of survival in the early months than non-breastfed children. An exclusively breastfed child is 14 times less likely to die in the first six months than a non-breastfed child, and breastfeeding drastically reduces deaths from acute respiratory infection and diarrhoea, two major child killers (Lancet 2008).
However, despite the lifesaving and other important benefits of this highly valuable natural resource, some infants, the majority of whom are sick, preterm, or LBW, have no access to their mothers’ own milk due to a number of factors. They include maternal illness, death and abandonment.
WHO recommends donated human milk as a lifesaving alternative for children with no access to their own mothers’ milk. The breast milk bank that was launched at Pumwani Maternity Hospital aims to bridge the gap by providing lifesaving breast milk to these babies.
Before setting up the milk bank, the Africa Population Health Research Centre conducted a feasibility study on the perception of such a facility. The findings were positive and indicated that 99 per cent of the mothers interviewed agreed that breast milk was very important for the health of newborn babies.
About 80 per cent indicated they would donate their breast milk to a human milk bank, and 60 per cent said they would allow their children to be fed with the milk.
This means that Kenyan women are very open to the idea and would be more than willing to donate their breast milk given a chance. Going by this positive feedback, mechanisms would then have to be put in place to educate women on donation, and also open the doors to more who would happily donate their milk to save babies’ lives.
South Africa is the only other country in Africa with a breastmilk bank. Launched in 2003, it has helped more than 10,000 babies since its inception. It feeds nearly 3,000 every year, supplying over 75 hospitals with donated human milk. If the same structure, or even a better one, is developed in Kenya, then thousands of babies can be saved from premature death.
Kenya is among the 75 countries that have signed up for 'The Every Newborn Action Plan', a comprehensive multi-partner initiative that aims to reduce neonatal mortality to 12 or fewer deaths per 1,000 live births in every country by 2030.
The strategic objectives for ending, among others, neonatal mortality, in the plan include strengthening and investing in care around the time of birth. Focus will be on improving the quality and experience of care, while ensuring full integration of services for women and babies across the continuum of care.
If the human milk bank established in Kenya is as successful as the one in South Africa, then the country is on the right track to achieving the set targets. In turn, the lives of thousands of babies in need of this highly valuable “white gold” will be saved.