“The only time rich and poor children are on an equal footing is in the first six months [of life].
“This is because poor moms’ and rich moms’ breast milk is exactly the same.”
KwaZulu-Natal paediatrics professor Anna Coutsoudis said this, quoting former United Nations Children’s Fund director James Grant, as she accepted a R370 000 award from Glaxosmithkline and NGO Saving the Children.
Coutsoudis has developed a cheap portable device to help mothers and nurses in remote areas pasteurise donated human breast milk which is given to infants whose mothers cannot breastfeed.
Underweight babies need the “lifegiving and healing nourishment of breast milk”, even if their mothers are too sick to breastfeed them, Coutsoudis said.
“Babies with a low birth weight have immature immune systems and an immature gut. They cannot take the insult of a cow’s milk formula.”
New-born infants drinking formula can develop a disease called necrotising enterocolitis, which usually kills the child.
As commercial pasteurisers cost from R200 000 to R400 000, Coutsoudis knew a cheaper method had to be found.
She boils donated breast milk in a jar floating in a pot of hot water, but she needed a way to ensure that the milk gets hot enough.
So she worked with the University of Washington’s computer engineering and science department to design a probe that detects the temperature of the boiling breast milk and sends messages to a phone telling the user the milk can be removed from the heat – all in 17 minutes. The device costs about R8 000.
The money given to Coutsoudis will be used by the university to roll out her portable device. It is already used in three hospitals in KwaZulu-Natal.