Disaster in the Philippines: Why overzealous breastfeeding promotion has no place in relief plans

Dear FFF,

We are based in Manila which, thankfully, was spared from the brunt of typhoon Haiyan. As you may be aware, our fellow Filipinos from the other islands of Leyte and Palawan suffered from this catastrophe. Aid has been slow in coming, and the situation is now miserable and desperate. Donations from all over the world are coming in, but the logistics of getting them to the people who need them are difficult because many of the islands are isolated and cannot be easily reached. Many have not eaten since Saturday. They also do not have clean drinking water and are living in the streets amidst rubble and dead bodies.

Which brings me to my question/issue – What is the best way to feed a baby in a crisis situation like this?

 Our Department of Health has BANNED donations of formula milk – powdered or pre-mix – because of the perils of formula and because it undermines breastfeeding.  According to the Department of Health, the best solution is to breastfeed, or if the mother is no longer breastfeeding, to give support towards re-lactation. If these are not feasible, then the next alternative is wet nursing. I do understand that this is the exact reason why formula has been deemed “dangerous – because preparation of formula in unsafe, unclean conditions (including using unclean water and bottles) can lead to diarrhea and infant mortality.  However, I also believe that the options given by the Department of Health practically require a mother to choose between death of a child by starvation and death by diarrhea.  They say re-lactation as if it was like turning on a switch. Most women who have weaned young babies likely had problems lactating in the first place. How likely is it that she would be able to re-lactate in the midst of the stress, chaos, and misery of a calamity? The Department of Health says that the solution is to provide breastfeeding support, counselling, and breastfeeding-friendly setups where breastfeeding can be encouraged.  In a situation where the most basic of necessities such as water, shelter, and medical care have not even reached the victims, it does not appear that anyone is currently equipped to provide these conditions that would foster breastfeeding in a crisis situation. Wet-nursing or donated milk is the next alternative presented. On wet-nursing, I do wonder if that is really a safe option, since it is possible to also contract disease from tainted breast milk. Again, in a calamity situation, who has the time and resources to check for infectious diseases when looking for a wet nurse?  On donated milk, I concede that this is probably the most viable option, but given the sheer number of people affected, I do not think that it is a sustainable source of nutrition for all the babies affected (given that several hundred thousand homes were affected). Babies need constant nutrition, and while donated milk may augment at the start, is it really sustainable to provide for the nutritional needs of all the victims in the coming days before they are moved to a safe and clean environment? 

And so, I think, banning pre-mix formula donations is a case of letting the principle of promoting breastfeeding defeat the principle of saving as many lives as possible.  Even the American Academy of Pediatrics concedes that pre-mixed formula is the last alternative when the other options are not feasible.  Our government, however, has taken the firm stance against formula and will refuse donations of pre-mixed formula.  Incidentally, pre-mixed is not readily available in the Philippines, but I’m sure it can be procured from other countries or even by local formula manufacturers if only it were allowed.

– S. T.

 

After receiving this email, I logged on to my computer to find several sources reiterating what the author had said. According to Gulf News,

Government and private hospitals in Manila called on nursing mothers nationwide to donate milk for babies in typhoon devastated central Philippines… Explaining the aim of the campaign, (Dr. Jessica Anne Dumalag of Manila’s Philippine General Hospital’s Human Milk Bank) said, “Milk from lactating mothers is preferred over formula milk, which is basically processed cow’s milk.”

The department of health which has been promoting breast feeding has a policy to prohibit the donation of formula milk for babies in temporary shelters, during a calamity….“Children are more exposed to allergy when they consume formula milk. We are also not sure if the water used to prepare formula milk is clean (that is why it is not recommended),” said Dumalag….Government and private hospitals including private organisations were organised to accept donations of human milk. Milk donations will be pasteurised, frozen, and kept in insulated containers before they are sent to evacuation centres in central Philippines, Dumalag said.

 

Concerns over water and sterile preparation of bottle feeds during disaster situations are valid and necessary. Several years ago, we had a lengthy debate here on FFF about this very topic; I’m well aware that if relactation or wet nursing is a possibility, it is without a doubt the safest option in natural disaster settings. Bacteria-filled water, poor sanitation, and lack of resources make formula feeding a deadly proposition; when formula feeding is seen to be “encouraged” in an at-risk population, lactation may be interrupted which can have long-term consequences (i.e., the family would then need formula on an ongoing basis, which could prove difficult if money or resources were an issue). I’m not disputing this, nor am I ignoring the fact that formula marketing in the Philippines is a hot button issue at the moment, and that breastfeeding promotion is in overdrive for reasons that I can’t fully comprehend, as a privileged Western woman.

But that’s not what this is about.

A policy that forbids powdered formula donations and encourages breastmilk donations is simply replacing one easily contaminated substance with another. Donated breastmilk – and this includes breastmilk procured by breastfeeding-related Facebook pages, speaking of privileged Western women – requires careful packaging, transport and refrigeration, not to mention screening for HIV and hepatitis B (the Philippines still has a low rate of HIV infection, but it’s rapidly increasing – TIME reports that every 3 hours a new case is now being diagnosed). There are still the same risks involved with sterilizing bottles, regardless of what’s filling them; nowhere in these news reports are people discussing the importance of cup feeding, for example – something that can significantly cut the chance of bacterial contamination.

There is, however, a substance that can be easily transported without refrigeration; that has a relatively stable and long shelf life; and which can be fed to babies in a perfectly sterile manner, at least in the short-term. That substance is ready-to-feed, pre-mixed formula, served in “nursette” bottles with pre-sterilized nipples (like these).

Granted, the cost of these supplies is rather high. But while I haven’t done the math, I’d venture to guess that the cost of procuring and safely distributing donor breastmilk would be just as prohibitive. And if people are ready and willing to donate RTF and pre-sterilized nipples, what would be the harm in allowing them to do so?

The answer is none. There would be no harm, except, perhaps, to the “cause” of breastfeeding promotion. That cause may be noble and important, but right now, it’s irrelevant. To put breastfeeding promotion ahead of feeding infants safely and in a timely manner is petty, short-sighted, and cruel. Think about it: would we discourage donations of processed, high-fat canned foods to disaster victims because of concerns over obesity, GMOs, or the environment? Or would we ensure that their immediate needs were met, and worry about preaching better health habits after the roads had been rebuilt and displaced families were settled into safe, warm homes?

The fact that Dr. Dumalog, quoted above, uses “allergies to formula” as a reason for forbidding RTF formula donations speaks to the irrationality of this policy. If a child is allergic to formula, there is also a chance s/he will react to something in a stranger’s milk. A breastfed baby may indeed react poorly to formula at first, but this is a case where the mom should receive plenty of assistance and encouragement to continue breastfeeding – not told to feed her baby via bottle with donated milk. With breastfeeding rates in the Philippines being what they are, it stands to reason that most of the babies without lactating mothers present are already formula fed – therefore they will probably do just fine with donated formula, even if it’s not the same brand. We’re talking about a little gas here, not a full-scale anaphylactic reaction.

Gulf News reports that “groups that promote breast-feeding in six hospitals and in several private clinics are part of the campaign.” A disaster situation is no place for “promotion” of anything but disaster relief. And the scariest thing about this is that the Filipino government isn’t alone in letting a hatred of formula get in the way of ration. The American Academy of Pediatrics also advocates for “screened human donor milk” before RTF (although they do, at least, acknowledge that this is an option). I have yet to see one study or agenda-free policy paper that actually looks at the viability of using donor milk as opposed to RTF formula with pre-sterilized nipples during disasters. If there is a logical reason behind these recommendations, I’d love to see it. All I can find are convoluted references to “breastfeeding being interrupted” (not an issue if we’re talking about babies who are already formula fed) and concerns about sterility and availability (absolutely valid, but just as valid in regards to donated milk, if not more so).

Governments must stop putting ideology above practicality. We are in desperate need of a neutral, informed, and rational voice to come up with better policies for infant feeding – policies that do not throw the cart before the horse, and end up running over its citizens in the process.

Is donor milk dangerous? Not as dangerous as hypocrisy.

Those of you who have been reading this blog long enough are probably well aware that I hate hypocrisy. I mean, I hate it. I hate it in politics, I hate it in religion, I hate it in the spats I have with Fearless Husband, and of course, I hate it in the breastfeeding/formula feeding debate.

But most of all, I hate it in myself.

That’s why I’m sitting here agonizing over how to report on a study that hit the news cycle tonight. According to NBC News,

…a new study finds that human milk bought and sold on the Internet may be contaminated — and dangerous…Nearly 75 percent of breast milk bought through the site OnlyTheBreast.com was tainted with high levels of disease-causing bacteria, including germs found in human waste…That’s according to Sarah A. Keim, a researcher at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, where her team purchased more than 100 samples of human milk last year, compared them to unpasteurized samples donated to a milk bank and then tested them for safety…what the researchers found was worrisome: more colonies of Gram-negative bacteria including coliform, staphylococcus and streptococcus bacteria in the milk purchased online, and, in about 20 percent of samples, cytomegalovirus, or CMV, which can cause serious illness in premature or sick babies. The contamination was associated with poor milk collection, storage or shipping practices, the analysis showed.

Here’s the problem: I look at articles which report on the dangers of formula with an intensely critical eye. It would be horrendously hypocritical for me not to do the same in this case – and I’m especially worried, because the people purchasing donor milk are in the same boat as many FFFs – people who wanted to breastfeed and couldn’t. I don’t want to turn my back on my audience and be a hypocrite in one fell swoop.

And yet.

Obtaining milk online is a new construct. We do not have several generations of humans raised on donor milk to examine and rely on for (admittedly insufficient, but oddly comforting) anecdata. We can’t define “donor milk” as clearly as we define commercial formula, because it isn’t a static product. Formula does not change based on a baby’s needs and age, or based on the diet or environment of the woman producing it; breastmilk does. There is not the issue of online, anonymous dealings when we discuss formula (well, unless you count the 16 cans of Alimentum my husband purchased on Ebay…I know, I know, but it was sealed. And that shit’s expensive if you buy it retail).

Discussing donor milk and the safety thereof is not the same as discussing formula, because there are so many more issues at play. This study is not about whether donor milk can nourish an infant better than formula can. This is about the biology of a live substance, and what happens to that substance once it leaves one person’s body and is transported to another’s. This is about body politics, and e-commerce. It is so much more complex than breast versus bottle.

So I hope I’m not being hypocritical when I look favorably at this study, because I do think it’s one worth taking seriously, as long as we acknowledge the limitations. Let’s review those, first:

1. It was a singular study. ONE study. Which used donor milk from one specific organization.

2. As the study is not yet available online, there’s still a lot we don’t know. NBC reports, “Of the 101 samples analyzed, 72 were contaminated with bacteria and would not have met criteria for feeding without pasteurization set by the Human Milk Banking Association of North America, or HMBANA.” I’m not sure how these criteria are set by HMBANA, and I don’t know exactly what the dangers of these bacteria are.

3. We don’t know that any of the babies who would have received this milk would necessarily have gotten sick. (This is one of the things we discuss with formula feeding studies, remember? For example, many people worry about the GMOs in formula. And yeah, most formulas contain ingredients derived from genetically modified corn, soy, and other foodstuffs.  But we have no evidence that babies fed these formulas suffer any ill effects from these tiny amounts of GMOs.)

Now, let’s talk about why this study is a little different than most of the breastmilk vs. formula studies we encounter.

1. The results were in vitro – aka, found in a lab. These were not observational or self-reported or marred by recollection bias. These were findings that were discovered from looking at samples under a microscope, in a controlled environment.

2. We do know that some of these bacteria are dangerous to babies.  20 % of the collected donor milk samples contained cytomegalovirus, which according to NBC “can cause serious illness in premature or sick babies.” 20% is a substantial amount.  The article didn’t give numbers for the samples which contained other disease-causing bacteria like coliform and staphylococcus, nor do we know if the amount of bacteria was sufficient to cause illness. (Please note: I think we do need to approach this with caution until we see more information, because there’s a chance the amount of bacteria wasn’t clinically significant.)

3. A large part of my ennui with formula studies is that most tell us the same thing: breastfeeding mothers are associated with healthier children. There’s not much variance in the theme of the research, or what can be done about it. This study is nothing like that. It is giving us actual information about the actual risk of bacterial contamination through donor milk. This is exactly why I started taking formula preparation rules so seriously when I saw in vitro studies on bacteria found in infant formula. It’s hard to argue with cold, hard science that has removed the human condition from the equation.

More importantly, this study offers us an opportunity. Not only does it allow us to improve milk sharing – something that can and should be a choice for moms who cannot or choose not to breastfeed – it reminds us that cold, hard science can be translated into better feeding options for families. Donor milk can and should be tested, to see how it needs to be stored and transported and screened. Formula can be compared with donor milk so that parents can understand the risks and benefits to both scenarios. Since one of the advantages of breastmilk is its ever-changing, adaptive personality, we could look at how the donor milk from a mom nursing a toddler might affect a newborn. We could even see if, say, the milk from women with higher IQs equates to higher IQs in babies fed their donor milk (oy, can you imagine the eugenic excitement over a finding like that? ::shudder::). You see where I’m going with this. When we’re discussing the substance rather than the behavior, a whole world of research will open up – research that can ultimately lead to improved formula, improved donor milk, and improved options for both babies and parents.

Lastly, it seems that defensiveness about negative press for one’s feeding choice is not exclusive to formula feeders. NBC quotes one milk sharing network’s founder as accusing the research of being “A blatant attack on women attempting to feed their babies”:

“..(It) is cruel and you should feel ashamed of yourself for spreading misinformation,” Khadijah Cisse, a midwife who founded MilkShare, a portal for connecting women cited in the new research, said in an email to NBC News. “Anyone can type up any bit of lies they want and make claims. Breast milk is supposed to contain bacteria.”

I feel bad for Cisse, as I know what it feels like to read research that denies my own lived experiences, or makes me feel judged for feeding my child in a specific manner. In her defense (and mine), it’s really hard to keep a lid on one’s anger when the media takes a 5k story and runs a marathon with it, without any consideration for context or nuance.

Imagine how much easier it would be to keep that proverbial lid tightly locked, if feeding choices were supported and respected. If the dialogue didn’t always involve universal bests. If we could make choices armed with more cold, hard science so that the choices themselves didn’t have to so damn cold and hard.

There’s a lot we could learn from this study.

Or, you know. It could die in an avalanche of hypocrisy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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