News & Events

Tiny Bottles of Relief Arrive for Haiti’s Newborns

Tiny Bottles of Relief Arrive for Haiti’s Newborns

Tamara Lytle Contributor

(Jan. 28) — For newborns struggling for life in the aftermath of Haiti’s earthquake, 140 tiny but powerful bottles of relief arrived Thursday afternoon: breast milk donated by American mothers.

The bottles were no bigger than travel toiletries – 3 ounces – but chock full of the nutrients and immunities so vital to babies. Especially babies suffering from injuries and illness or born prematurely in a disaster area.

When a U.S. Navy helicopter carrying the precious cargo touched down on the USNS Comfort hospital ship, which sits off the coast of the devastated country, it was the final leg of a complicated sprint.

Talia Frenkel, American Red Cross / AP

Red Cross volunteer Jean Zacharie delivers first aid to a 1-month-old baby whose mother was killed by the earthquake in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

But after surviving a commercial plane flight, a charter ride, a helicopter trip and two days on dry ice, the milk ran headlong into red tape.

Navy spokesman Lt. David Shark, who is aboard the Comfort, said U.S. Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance, which is part of USAID, complained about the idea of distributing donated breast milk and issued a statement calling it an "unfeasible and unsafe intervention."

"We acknowledge the generosity of the donor of the breast milk but have concerns based on years of best practices. It is the humanitarian community’s position that supporting donations of donor breast milk is not recommended in emergencies for a number of reasons," the OFDA statement said.

"These reasons include huge logistical constraints, lack of cold chain supply, and no clear guidance on ethical issues, breast milk screening, and continuity of supply," it said.

But Shark said the milk may still be used. The important "cold chain" was preserved – meaning the milk stayed frozen during the trip. Doctors from the Comfort, which has more than 200 military medical personnel aboard, will make a presentation to the task force that oversees U.S. efforts in Haiti.

"There a very real possibility we will be using the product soon," Shark said. Meanwhile, the milk sits in two Styrofoam coolers just inside a large freezer on the Comfort.

The effort to get that milk into the Comfort’s freezer began on Tuesday, as word went out to mothers’ groups around the country that the Haitian babies needed help. The nation’s 10 nonprofit milk banks – which usually get breast milk donations for medically fragile American infants whose mothers cannot provide it – were quickly flooded with hundreds of calls from mothers touched by the images of devastation in Haiti since the 7.0-magnitude earthquake hit Jan. 12.

"It shows the best of the best the U.S. can muster," said Pauline Sakamoto, head of The Human Milk Banking Association of North America, which provided the milk. "It’s just an outpouring of support."

All those offers of donations will help any future shipments to Haiti if there are any and replenish the already low supplies in U.S. milk banks. The first shipment was culled from supplies on hand and handed off Tuesday morning to Quick International Courier, which donated its services to get the milk to Haiti and handled all the complications involved in keeping the milk frozen.

The frozen milk arrived in the wee hours of Thursday morning in Port-au-Prince and was picked up by a Navy helicopter. By Thursday afternoon the milk was aboard and ready for premature babies and other sick infants, some of them orphaned by the disaster.

Amanda Nickerson, head of the International Breast Milk Project, which led the effort, said 1,000 ounces were ready to ship. But the Comfort didn’t have enough freezer space. Her nonprofit had made a similar shipment to the Philippines last October after a typhoon and regularly sends milk to infants in South Africa, many of them orphaned by AIDS. She hopes to send more milk to Haiti.

Haiti has 37,000 pregnant women in its capital alone, and 10,000 of them are due in the next 30 days, according to Alina Labrada of CARE, a nonprofit that fights poverty and helps women and children around the world. Conditions there are still difficult, said Labrada, whose organization has 30 workers in the country. "The water is so dirty, the sanitation is such a problem, a lot of women don’t have enough to eat and drink themselves and aren’t going to make enough milk."

Sakamoto said she hopes Americans also will donate to organizations that help Haitian mothers breast-feed amid the chaotic aftermath of the earthquake.

The dirty water in Haiti also means that formula can be dangerous for babies in displaced families who don’t have clean water to mix with it.

The International Lactation Consultant Association on Thursday warned people not to send formula to Haiti. After the Asian tsunamis, formula donations caused a tripling of diarrheal disease, according to the association.

U.S. milk banks regularly take donations from mothers after putting the donors through a screening test similar to what’s done for blood donations. The women also must take a blood test and get approval from their doctors. The milk comes from mothers who are pumping milk for their own children and end up with extra. The milk is pasteurized and frozen.

In 2008 – the most recent year for which figures are available – Sakamoto’s organization shipped 1.4 million ounces of milk out to neonatal intensive care units and other doctors to dispense.

Dane Nutty, outreach director of the Indiana Mothers’ Milk Bank, said he hopes to find a way to help Haitian infants who aren’t on the Comfort. The logistics are daunting.

"If you have a country without power, how are you going to store the milk?" Nutty asked. "We are building up our supplies so that when we do work out the logistics on land, we will have a supply ready."

Meanwhile, the new donors could help shore up supplies for U.S. babies.

"This is a phenomenal response," Sakamoto said. "But there are kids in this country in the same situation that need this milk. They may not be in a major earthquake, but they can’t tolerate other food sources and they have high-risk medical [conditions]."