Will donating breast milk help Haitian infants?

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This week several organizations, including the International Breast Milk Project, issued a call for human milk donations for infants in Haiti, as the U.S. Navy ship Comfort is equipped with a neonatal intensive care unit that can transport the breast milk. Yet, while nursing mothers have heeded the call, and some 500 ounces of donated breast milk have already been sent to Haiti by joint efforts of the International Breast Milk Project and the Human Milk Banking Association of North America, a joint statement issued by the World Health Organization, UNICEF and the United Nations World Food Programme suggests that, at this point, the necessary infrastructure isn’t yet in place for those well-meaning donations to truly make a difference. To learn more about the best way to help babies struggling to survive in the wake of the Haiti disaster, TIME spoke with Dr. Nune Mangasaryan, senior adviser on infant nutrition for UNICEF.

TIME: While the joint statement indicates the value of breast-feeding infants during the first six months of life, it also clarifies that, currently, the infrastructure isn’t in place for human milk donations to get to those infants in need. From the statement:

“Human milk donations while safe when processed and pasteurized in a human milk bank also require fully functioning cold chains. Such conditions are not currently met in Haiti and human milk donations cannot be used at present.”

Dr. Mangasaryan: At this point it’s not the recommended way of assisting Haiti. The reason for saying this, is that the systems needed to transport [breast milk] and to deliver it in the country, are not ready at this point. You have to have quite a significant number of freezers, you have to have electricity, and you have to be able to transport it from one part of the country to another. [With the current level of devastation] at this point, donating breast milk isn’t preferable.

TIME: Could that policy change in the future?

Dr. Mangasaryan: This doesn’t mean that in general, donated breast milk isn’t good. In the future, maybe after a few months, we can think about whether the institutions, orphanages, etc, are ready to accept [breast milk donations], but at this point we are doubtful.

TIME: For orphans, or babies separated from their mothers, what is recommended, if not breast milk donations at this point?

Dr. Mangasaryan: At this point what we recommend for them is ready-to-use infant formula, that’s already in a liquid form, meaning no risk of contamination by mixing powdered formula with water, for example. It’s already ready-to-use, and there are certain numbers already available in the country.

TIME: The joint statement deters people from trying to send formula directly to Haiti. From the statement:

In accordance with internationally accepted guidelines, donations of infant formula, bottles and teats and other powdered or liquid milk and milk products should not be made. Experience with past emergencies has shown an excessive quantity of products, which are poorly targeted, endangering infants’ lives. Any procurement of breast milk substitutes should be based on careful needs assessment and in coordination with UNICEF.

What is the best way to contribute to the nutritional needs of children and nursing mothers in Haiti?

Dr. Mangasaryan: Try to provide financial funding and support to agencies that are working on the ground. We have at this point, not only UNICEF, but a nutrition cluster working in Haiti, proactively working on the ground to make sure that all of this support comes to mothers and babies. These agencies are skilled, they know the job, they know what to do. The best is just to help them.

TIME: How will we know when the infrastructure is in place and breast milk donations can get to the infants who need them?

Dr. Mangasaryan: I would just say that this matter has to be revisited sometime later on, and it definitely this has to come from Haiti, from the specialists on the ground. We really need to look at them and see what are the best methods at this point. I know that there are organizations that are trying to help with breast milk in Haiti, and there are mothers who are ready to donate. It’s all done out of goodwill, but we really have to take into consideration current conditions.

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