A human milk bank in the North West, the first in the country, is proving to be the difference between life and death for babies in the province.
Since the introduction of the milk bank at the Potchefstroom Hospital, the infant mortality rate at the hospital has decreased significantly.
“Before the Human Milk Bank Programme was launched, infant mortality at the hospital stood at 4.7 per cent in August 2012 but had dropped to zero per cent by January 2013,” said North West Health Department spokesperson Tebogo Lekgethwane.
Infants born prematurely are at a high risk of developing necrotising enterocolitis, an infection of the intestine, which is avoidable through breastfeeding, he explained.
In some instances mothers cannot breastfeed their newborns because they are too ill, have clinical problems or have passed away.
This is where the milk bank steps in, with other breastfeeding mothers donating their milk.
At the milk bank, donors are screened, while the milk is collected, processed, stored and distributed to vulnerable newborns.
Mothers are screened for HIV and other infections before they can donate their milk, Lekgethwane stressed.
The unsterilised donated milk is stored in a plastic bottle and frozen. The second step includes sterilising the milk and storing it at the bank.
“It is then taken to Neonatal Intensive Care Unit where it is fed to premature infants who have a body weight of less than 1.8kg,” he added.
Since the launch of the programme, 24 newborn babies received the donated milk at the hospital, after doctors decided that they were in need of it.
The province is in the process of establishing another milk bank at the Job Shimakane Tabane Hospital in Rustenburg.
Lekgethwane said setting up the milk bank at the Potchefstroom Hospital cost the provincial government R185 000 and R9 900 a month was needed to maintain it. In addition to the milk bank, the department has also established 13 Maternity Waiting Homes.
A Maternity Waiting Home is a residential facility located close to a medical facility where women defined as high risk can await their delivery and be transferred to the facility shortly before delivery or earlier if there are complications.
Skilled birth attendants also cater for low risk women who live far away from health facilities to ensure safe delivery.
In 2011 Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi, along with health MECs and other stakeholders, signed the Tshwane Declaration, which promotes breastfeeding.
The declaration acknowledged that South Africa had to contend with a high infant and child mortality rate and reducing this was a priority for government.
South Africa committed itself to promoting breastfeeding and it was agreed that human milk banks would prove effective in postnatal wards and Neonatal Intensive Care Units.