A breast milk donation bank at KK Women's and Children's Hospital (KKH), which has recruited more than 400 donors since its launch in August last year, has helped more than 600 vulnerable babies whose mothers cannot produce enough milk for them.
Breast milk collected by the bank - the only one in Singapore - has also enabled a drop in the incidence of necrotising enterocolitis, a serious intestinal disease which is the leading cause of death among premature babies.
Before the bank was started, 5.8 per cent of around 200 babies had the disease. But this has dropped to the current 1.8 per cent, KKH said yesterday.
Previously, these babies were fed formula milk, which may cause feeding intolerance in premature and sick infants and puts them at risk of necrotising enterocolitis.
Breast milk contains enzymes that help with digestion, nutrients, growth factors, hormones and protective antibodies. It cuts the risk of illnesses and promotes normal growth and development of babies.
Last year, about 10 per cent of live births, or 3,962 babies, here were premature. At KKH, the proportion of pre-term births rose from 11 per cent to 13.5 per cent, or about 1,500 pre-term births, between 2007 and last year, said Dr Chua Mei Chien, director of KKH's Human Milk Bank.
The main reasons for this are the increasing maternal age at first pregnancy and a higher rate of assisted pregnancies, she added.
Most recipients of the donated human milk were premature babies from KKH, Singapore General Hospital and National University Hospital.
Other recipients included sick babies with medical conditions such as low birth weight, congenital heart disease and conditions affecting the gastrointestinal tract.
Only babies who are Singaporean or permanent residents born in the three hospitals are eligible for the milk bank. On average, each recipient received 2.9 litres of donor human milk over 13 days, said Dr Chua.
Criteria for human milk donors
Donors must be healthy and not engage in high-risk behaviours, which include if she:
• Uses illegal drugs, tobacco products or smokes
• Consumes more than three cups of tea, coffee, cola or stimulant soft drinks per day
• Regularly has more than two ounces of alcohol per day
• Has received a blood transfusion or blood products in the last four months
• Has been declined as a blood donor for a medical reason (other than pregnancy or nursing)
• Has received an organ or tissue transplant in the last 12 months
• Has a positive blood test result for human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), hepatitis B or C, or syphilis or her sexual partner is at risk for HIV
• Is on regular medication or herbal supplements
• Had an ear or body piercing; a tattoo; permanent body make-up; accidental needlestick injury in the past 12 months
Donors must also be free from infectious diseases and go for blood tests, which cover:
• HIV 1 and 2 antibodies (anti-HIV 1 and anti-HIV 2)
• Hepatitis C antibody (anti-HCV)
• Hepatitis B surface antigen (HbsAg)
• Hepatitis B core antibody (anti-HBc)
• Syphilis antibody
The bank is a $1.37 million project funded over three years by philanthropic organisation Temasek Foundation Cares. Stringent processes are in place to ensure that human donor milk is safe for consumption.
Donors have to undergo blood tests for various diseases and donated milk is tested for bacteria contamination and pasteurised.
Milk donated under the project is free as the costs of processing it are covered by the organisation's grant.
Temasek Foundation Cares will commit more funding to expand the programme beyond the hospital setting, such as for babies who live in challenging environments, or whose mothers have infectious diseases, are undergoing medical treatments, or have substance addictions, said its chief executive, Ms Woon Saet Nyoon.
Madam Aileen Gonzalez, 39, who has both received and donated breast milk to the bank, feels that it is very helpful to mothers like her.
Her daughters were both born premature. She said the older girl, who is now five years old, was fed with formula milk, whereas her six-month-old received donated milk from the milk bank.
"Even though it's from another mum, I think breast milk still contains the best nutrients for the child," said Madam Gonzalez, an analyst in logistics operation.