July 29, 2008
Brazil has a national network of 192 breast milk banks that can treat milk from HIV-positive mothers, allowing them to safely breastfeed their infants without the risk of infection. The country is now sharing its technology with banks across Latin America, and is looking at ways to adapt it for Africa.
According to UNICEF, babies who are breastfed are six times more likely to survive the first two months of life. Breastfeeding contributes to infants' cognitive development, helps prevent anemia, and lowers the risk of ovarian and breast cancer in mothers.
When scientists discovered that HIV can pass through breast milk, most milk banks worldwide were shuttered. But Brazil decided to keep its banks open, ensuring the safety of the milk through sterilization.
"We had a very great fight to keep the banks at work," said Franz Novak, a human milk researcher at the Rio de Janeiro-based Oswaldo Cruz Foundation. "Given that we worked with pasteurization at 62.5 degrees (Celsius; 145 degrees Fahrenheit), over 30 minutes, we were sure that it de-activated HIV in human milk."
Brazil's banks procure milk from healthy women who are clinically screened ahead of donation. HIV-positive mothers can have their own milk processed to feed their babies as well. After the milk is pasteurized and certified, priority is given to "low-weight babies and sick babies, especially those sick with infections," said Novak.
Already, Brazil has shared its technology with Venezuela, Argentina and Uruguay. Milk banks are planned for Ecuador, Honduras, Colombia, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic.
"We are discussing how to adapt our work to Africa," said Novak. "But there are crucial differences, due to climate conditions, conditions of health and hygiene, important questions for the cold chain. Once collected, milk has to be kept at a low temperature, and this is more complicated in Africa."