Got milk? Human milk banks help moms keep infants healthy

Oct 23, 2013


Kiersten at a mothers' group meeting  in Khiro block, district Rai Bareli in  Uttar Pradesh, India.

Kiersten Israel-Ballard, Technical Officer for the Maternal, Child Health and Nutrition Program from PATH's Seattle office was in India in September 2013. Kiersten, who loves the outdoors and spends as much time as possible in the mountains around Seattle, speaks about her experiences in India over the past few years. Her work includes the Digital Public Health Project and working on the global milk bank. The human milk banks operates on a sophisticated level: screening donor milk, collecting this excess milk, sending it to the laboratory , pasteurizing and freezing it, and making it available for low-birth-weight babies.


Could you tell us about your work in India?

Globally, PATH has the momentum to scale up human milk banks, an innovative strategy to reduce neonatal morbidity and mortality.  We have a Global Technical Advisory Group in place to provide guidance based on the expertise of human milk bank technicians and managers from around the world. From these experts, we have compiled information on best practices of human milk banking processes. More importantly, we are developing an integrated model of human milk banking based on the system in Brazil which has contributed to the reduction of neonatal deaths in that country.  India has a significant infant mortality burden and we would like to see how we can help. PATH is working to provide assistance at the policy level and also to develop improved technologies for low-cost and high-quality pasteurization monitoring and bacterial screening to ensure safety of donated breast milk.

Simplified systems could be appropriate for small-scale human milk banks in district centers in India.  


What are some of the immediate learnings that India can take from Brazil?

The Brazilian National Network of Human Milk Banks has been successful in the reduction of neonatal deaths in that country, because of their integrated approach to milk banks. The milk bank is situated within hospitals where women seek lactation support among other birth-related facilities.  Apart from neonatologists, the centre has nursing students, psychologists, nutritionists, and others addressing every aspect that new moms face. There is huge awareness on this and the primary focus is on promoting breastfeeding.  

This awareness is also crucial for the success of milk banks. Even as moms are encouraged to breastfeed, they are also counseled on how to deal with ailing infants, and in case they have extra milk, they are told about the significance of donating, too.

In Brazil, celebrity footballers and media personnel have lent their might to the movement and have endorsed breastfeeding promotion, significantly strengthening the effectiveness of Brazil's awareness campaigns. The country has achieved a reduction in neonatal deaths since the 1980s.

All these align with the challenges that India is faced with while dealing with under-five mortality.


Would you like to share some experience in India?

This is my fifth visit to India. I find the PATH India staff very warm and welcoming, but also very driven and dedicated and it is a pleasure to be here. My experience from the field says that even in the the most remote areas, such as in mothers' groups, people are so eager to learn and practice healthy behaviors.


Some learning that you will be taking back?

There is also a lot of learning from the Digital Health Project. PATH has learnt that the most effective projects are those that are community-driven, locally designed, and implemented back within the same local community. This creates sustainability and is an approach can be applied to other PATH projects and expanded globally.

The work that the community advisory board in the villages in Uttar Pradesh does in the DHP project is community-driven targeting maternal health. The videos focus on danger signs during pregnancy, birth prepardedness, emergency transport, newborn care,  and family planning.  I would say that for every project there needs to be a champion to ensure sustainability.


-- Sushmita Malaviya, Communications Officer, PATH's India office.