When lactation consultant Faith Ploude heard that babies in Haiti might need donated breast milk, she made sure to get the word out to her classes at Mercy Hospital in Miami — and her database of more than 1,000 nursing moms.
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“Everybody is moved because Haiti is so devastated,” she said.
But it turns out that Ploude and a bevy of United States breast-feeding advocates may have unleashed a well-meaning but misguided flood of mothers’ milk to the earthquake-shattered nation, one that aid workers in Haiti say was not requested — and is not needed.
“Tell them not to send it,” said Eric Porterfield, a spokesman for the American Red Cross. “I’m 100 percent sure we didn’t ask for that.”
The international Emergency Nutrition Network has asked one group, the Human Milk Banking Association of North America, to retract a press release this week that issued an “urgent call” for breast milk for orphaned and premature infants in Haiti, saying the donations contradict best practices for babies in emergencies.
Such donations pose problems of transportation, screening, supply and storage and create an “unfeasible and unsafe intervention,” according to a statement from the Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance, or OFDA.
Simply trying to fill a need
Pauline Sakamoto, executive director of HMBANA, said the group was simply trying to help fill a need, if not in Haiti, then elsewhere. Donated milk that doesn't make it to Haitian babies will be diverted for use in the U.S. and Canada, she said.
“We don’t want to waste an ounce of milk. It’s very precious,” she said, adding.
The confusion started earlier this week when the milk bank group and several organizations — including heavy hitters like La Leche League International — urged nursing mothers to donate milk. While representatives for aid agencies such as the American Red Cross, Doctors Without Borders and World Vision said there never was a need for donated milk, some agencies said they heard from workers at orphanages in Haiti who indicated that babies were going hungry.
“This was very grass roots,” said Amanda Nickerson, executive director of the International Breast Milk Project.
That group arranged for donation and transport of 500 ounces of breast milk to the U.S. Navy ship Comfort, the hospital ship parked off the coast of Haiti. The ship is equipped with a neonatal intensive care unit and freezer space. That’s enough milk to feed a newborn for a couple of weeks.
Donated milk remains unused
But the staff on the U.S. Navy ship said they haven't used the milk out of concerns raised by OFDA and other agencies. Mothers aboard the Comfort are urged to nurse their own babies and there’s infant formula available to children whose mothers cannot or will not breast-feed, said Lt. David Shark, a U.S. Navy spokesman.
But that hasn’t stopped the flood of would-be donations in the U.S. Fueled by posts on parenting blogs and e-mail chains, hundreds of women across America began calling local milk bank agencies to ask about donating milk to Haiti babies.
“It’s sort of taken on a life of its own,” said Dr. Joan Younger-Meek, chairwoman of the U.S. Breastfeeding Committee.
Now the challenge is to quell the response of well-meaning mothers while still retaining support and awareness for breast milk donations to feed premature babies in the U.S. or to help those whose mothers can't nurse.
“Breast-feeding women want to do something to help these babies in Haiti,” Younger-Meek said. “But the relief workers don’t have the infrastructure to support that need right now.”
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