By Nicole Brochu
FORT LAUDEREDALE, Fla. _ In an age when breastfeeding is all the rage, more lactating women are turning to the Internet to give away their surplus milk. But despite their altruistic intentions, this blossoming community of women casually swapping breast milk online has health officials alarmed over the potential safety risks.
Now a new venture is offering donors a nobler alternative: a safe way to give their milk to the neediest newborns through a screened, pasteurized process.Say hello to Florida's first nonprofit breast milk "depot," the brainchild of a Cooper City mom who couldn't breastfeed her severely allergic baby and discovered how hard it was to find safe donor milk.
The depot, which officially opened Feb. 19 in The Gathering Place maternity center in Miami, aims to chip away at the shortage of breast milk available for frail babies by making safe donation available to more women. At least 16 hospitals in Florida are using the processed human milk to feed their neediest preemies.
"The only safe way to share milk is through a milk bank," said Amy Vickers, executive director of the Mothers' Milk Bank of North Texas, which receives the South Florida depot's milk for processing. "It's a misappropriated and scarce resource. We would love to have enough milk for all babies, but for pre-term babies, it's life and death."
Since collecting milk at the beginning of the year, the depot has amassed nearly 5,000 ounces, which are stored in an on-site freezer that can keep up to 1,300 ounces at a time, said Tamara Taitt, co-owner of The Gathering Place.Donors are not paid for their milk, and all are screened through an interview process and a blood test.
Florida does not have its own milk bank to pasteurize the donations, so The Gathering Place ships the nutrient-rich liquid to Mothers' Milk Bank of North Texas, one of 11 in the United States operated under the Human Milk Banking Association of North America's nonprofit umbrella _ and the nearest bank serving the Sunshine State.
There, the milk is tested for various viruses, then pasteurized through a three-minute heat process to remove bacteria.
And yet, at a time when milk-sharing is experiencing its biggest resurgence since the days of the wet nurse, many women are not using milk banks, connecting instead via online communities with no formal guidelines, oversight or regulations.
Among the most popular venues is the Human Milk 4 Human Babies Facebook network, which calls itself "a virtual village" connecting "informed" women in all 50 U.S. states and around the globe. It does not arrange for testing, screening, pasteurizing or distribution of the milk, and it does not take "any responsibility for the outcomes of milksharing."
Instead, it acts as a bulletin board of sorts for moms to post their need for milk and connect with other moms in their geographic area who have milk available. The HM4HB-Florida page, with more than 1,800 likes, has requests posted regularly, sometimes several times a day. The page's manager did not return requests for comment, and the network's founder did not return phone and email messages.
As these casual-sharing sites bloom, government officials are issuing warnings.On its website, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration "recommends against feeding your baby breast milk acquired directly from individuals or through the Internet," advising moms to "only use milk from a source that has screened its milk donors and taken other precautions to ensure the safety of its milk."
"Because human milk is a bodily fluid, like blood, it could carry bacteria that could harm a child," said Kim Updegrove, president of the Human Milk Banking Association. "It's scary to think about untested, unscreened, unprocessed milk because it can make babies very sick."
Expectant mom Alexis Komie, of Greenacres, Fla., said she definitely plans to bring any surplus milk to the depot once her baby is born in July and she begins nursing, saying the drive to Miami from her home would be "a lot more convenient" than shipping the milk to Texas.The 22-year-old lost her first baby when the umbilical cord suffocated the little girl just before a scheduled C-section delivery. She ended up donating 108 ounces of breast milk to the North Texas bank last summer."I started thinking about saving another baby's life, and knowing that this was something only I could do - my mother couldn't do it, my boyfriend couldn't do it - it made me feel better."
The milk collected by the association's banks is provided to babies with a documented medical need and a doctor's prescription. In 2012, the nonprofit milk banks collected and distributed 2.5 million ounces, said Updegrove, the association's president. Most of that - 75 percent in the case of the North Texas milk bank - goes to hospital Neonatal Intensive Care Units around the country.
For individual babies outside a hospital setting, the milk banks provide "charitable care" assistance for those whose insurance plans won't pay for donor milk, she added.The milk that doesn't go to NICU preemies goes to moms like Cooper City's Florencia Martinez, 23, a doula who struggled with painful, cracked and bleeding nipples and a baby who couldn't breastfeed. She tried to give baby Lucas formula, but he threw it up, passed blood in his stool and began losing weight at 3 months old.
Desperate to find breast milk but unwilling to go to the casual sharing sites, Martinez found the North Texas milk bank and completed the detailed process to document her baby's medical need for breast milk. Every week or two since the end of June, she has been getting a cooler packed with dry ice and a supply of donor milk delivered to her door. It's not always enough to feed Lucas all he needs, so Martinez supplements with her own pumped milk whenever necessary.
"I don't know how many moms it took to feed my baby, but I was so grateful," she said.She decided to give back, approaching The Gathering Place with the depot idea and helping to get it started.
It's the first step in establishing what Martinez hopes will be Florida's first milk bank, with South Florida moms feeding South Florida babies in need.The nonprofit milk banks could safely feed processed human milk to every baby, even healthy ones, "if we could convince every informal-sharing mom to donate to a milk bank," Updegrove said. "I think they're not doing that because they don't know we exist."