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Breast milk—big business!

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

On the Gastro Ward at Port-of-Spain General Hospital, the infamous Ward 54 as it used to be known in its heyday, where, for years, more than 100 children annually died from Gastro, one often encountered babies in such poor nutritional state that it was impossible to stop their diarrhoea.

In the 1980s we countered that by asking mothers from TIBS, the newly-established national breastfeeding support association, to come in and express their milk. We gave it immediately to the babies. It was almost always successful. Babies who had been having ten and 20 bowel motions a day, literally withering away before your eyes, halved their output, began to tolerate oral fluids and gain weight.

Food was the underlying problem. It often is in health. Most of the undernourished babies came from poor families who had been convinced by the formula company “milk nurses,” that formula was better than breastmilk but could not afford the price of formula and so diluted the milk. Add to that the problem with obtaining clean water to mix the “tea” and the difficulty to boil and sterilise that water and you have some idea why those babies got Gastro.

In that situation breastmilk was worth its weight in gold. So it is interesting to read that a new commodity, breastmilk, is now on the market. For sale. As a business. This is not breastmilk for sale over the Internet as has been happening for several years. This is not milk from a breastmilk bank, something that doctors have been using for a generation. This is also not breastmilk from mothers to mothers who see what they do as the continuation of an age-old practice (mothers have breastfed each others babies for millennia). This is a real business.

Last Friday, in the New York Times Business Section, an article by Andrew Pollack entitled Breast Milk Becomes a Commodity, With Mothers Caught Up in Debate, reported that “venture capitalists have poured more than US$40 million into a company, Prolacta Bioscience.” that buys breastmilk and turns it into a high-protein concentrate for extremely premature babies” ie those who weigh less than two-and-a-half pounds.

The concentrate contains high levels of breastmilk protein, fats, sugars, vitamins, minerals and other unknown factors that protect against infection and stimulate growth. It is used to supplement breast milk, now routinely used in premature nurseries. It has been shown to protect premature babies against infections, but is expensive. It costs about $180 an ounce. The Times did not report how much Prolacta pays for breastmilk but on the Net yesterday (see, the asking price ranged from US$1 to US$5 per ounce with most coming in at around US$2 per ounce.
Good business!  

Prolacta processed 2.4 million ounces, or 18,750 gallons, of milk last year and aims to do 3.4 million this year. The company is privately owned and does not disclose its revenue but is said to be growing 40 per cent a year. The product is used by about 150 of the 900 neonatal intensive care units in the USA that care for these extreme preemies.

The Times says the company’s chief executive calls breastmilk, “white plasma” comparing human milk to blood plasma, which has long been collected from donors and made into valuable medical products like immune globulin, which helps fight infections, and clotting factors for bleeders.

In fact concentrated breastmilk could be just the start. We have known for a long time that breast milk is full of substances that if isolated could be used to treat many diseases, not only for babies but for adults.

For example, whole breastmilk has been used to treat the suppressed immune response in some liver transplant patients and there are a number of companies trying “to develop products based on complex sugars that are abundant in breast milk and that appear to nourish bacteria in the digestive tract that are important to health.” Some of these sugars may be the very products that helped our babies on Ward 54 who had intractable diarrhoea.

In fact the latest trend in bodybuilding these days appears to be drinking breastmilk. As far as I know this is not happening in the country. Apart from the silly idea of bodybuilders drinking baby milk, there are other problems with pushing breastmilk as a commodity. The image of poor women from underdeveloped countries plugging themselves into rows of milking machines comes immediately to mind and in fact several breastfeeding groups have come out against the idea of women selling breastmilk to companies for profit.

Then there is the hygiene aspect. Various toxins can be transmitted in breastmilk. Each batch of milk arriving at the Prolacta factory in Los Angeles, is tested for viral infections, nicotine, drugs of abuse like alcohol and cocaine and, since we are dealing with humans, dilution, and adulteration with cow’s milk. The women who supply the milk regularly take blood tests for infectious diseases like AIDS and herpes and must provide notes from doctors saying they and their baby are healthy.  They also have to furnish DNA samples to verify that their milk came from them. 

One is left to wonder what might have happened if we had taken the breastmilk solution on the Gastro ward to its logical conclusion and started a breastmilk business back in the ’80s. Business is business, even in time of trouble.


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