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SA Breastmilk Reserve’s new milk tests to be lifeline for moms and babies

NGO research will test donated breast milk, rather than blood samples, for HIV and hepatitis B

SA Breastmilk Reserve executive director Stasha Jordan with children from the Early Childhood Development Centre in Mankweng, Limpopo.
SA Breastmilk Reserve executive director Stasha Jordan with children from the Early Childhood Development Centre in Mankweng, Limpopo.
Image: Supplied

The SA Breastmilk Reserve’s innovative research on new ways to test donated breast milk for HIV and hepatitis B is set to save millions of rand and an untold number of lives of mothers and babies.

The veteran NGO and Discovery Fund partner will test donated breast milk for HIV and hepatitis B instead of taking blood samples, which is the current practice.

Founded by executive director Stasha Jordan, the SA Breastmilk Reserve has milk banks in 27 public tertiary hospitals and provides life-saving milk to 80 neonatal intensive-care units (ICUs) nationwide where mothers are unable to breastfeed. It has proved agile in responding to dire and even more basic needs of mothers and babies.

Jordan says the NGO’s R5m annual budget promotes and enables exclusive breastfeeding while piloting projects to provide basic sanitation, water and food to mothers in disadvantaged communities. 

“You get newborns in neonatal ICUs with the mother too ill to lactate or even dying from Covid-19 or other ailments. If not breastfed, that baby will succumb to necrotising enterocolitis [a bacterial infection of the intestinal wall], a condition so common that it has a huge impact on hospital and medical aid budgets,” says Jordan.

‘Double or Double’: a success story

The SA Breastmilk Reserve launched its “Double or Double” initiative during the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020. To meet the need for breast milk, it added seven new neonatal ICUs to the pro bono top-up programme that sends milk from the reserve’s head office to the 27 banks or hospitals that do not have a human milk bank. 

“In the third wave we’ve extended our coverage to three new hospitals and officially extended the offer of support to the directors for maternal and child health of all the provinces we work with,” Jordan says.

The need to top up hospitals arises when the maternal population is exposed to HIV, which makes viable milk donors difficult to find. Amid the Covid-19 pandemic, access restrictions have left mothers unable to meet the daily feeding requirements of babies in hospitals.

Thanks to this initiative, 5,729 premature babies in hospitals received breastfeeding support from the SA Breastmilk Reserve in 2020 and 2021 — 2,700 more than the previous financial year.

SA Breastmilk Reserve executive director Stasha Jordan.
SA Breastmilk Reserve executive director Stasha Jordan.
Image: Supplied

Giving smart food vouchers to families in need

The SA Breastmilk Reserve also piloted an unstructured supplementary service data system that generates smart food vouchers that people can redeem at a popular local supermarket chain. The US-based Roddenberry Foundation’s Catalyst Fund donated R250,000 to the pilot programme. 

“We spent R150,000 to issue R150 food vouchers to 1,000 people in the informal Mankweng settlement, 32km from Polokwane, in Limpopo,” says Jordan. “We’re about to establish a container facility in the area that operates as both a tissue bank and an off-the-grid, first-1,000-days childcare clinic.” 

Milk collected there is transferred to Mankweng Hospital in Polokwane.

By the end of November 2020, the NGO had “fed everybody for a month”.

Digging even deeper

However, Jordan’s team realised that the community’s needs were even more basic. Only 46% of SA households have access to piped water, with schools and children in rural areas among the worst affected — the latter underscoring the importance of breastfeeding. An estimated 26.8% of the country’s households have access to water on their properties while 13.3% need to share a communal tap, according to research verified by Africa Check.

“So, we used the rest of the money to sink a borehole,” Jordan says. “They needed clean water and flushing toilets — everything else was subsidiary.”

On March 28 2021, the Mankweng borehole was put into service. The toilets followed.

Groundbreaking virology research kicks in

In May 2021, the NGO received the Discovery Foundation Rural Institutional Award to the value of R500,000 to do groundbreaking virology research at the University of Pretoria. 

Donors provide breast milk and blood at designated sites simultaneously, and the blood pathology tests check the milk for HIV and hepatitis B.

“Instead of drawing blood, we’ll use the breast milk to run the rival pathology,” Jordan says. 

The potential public health cost savings and industry implications are profound.

“We’re approaching the labs for market research and collaborating with the SA Medical Research Council, the SA National Blood Service and the National Institute for Communicable Diseases,” she says.

Covid-19 a major aggravator

Pregnant women have also been affected by Covid-19, with one in six women admitted to an ICU and one in 16 dying. 

Jordan’s dream is to see all public hospitals creating on-site lodging for mothers with babies in the neonatal ICU. The Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital leads the way with a 34-bed lodge for exclusively breastfeeding mothers, albeit too few beds to match the 116 high-care neonatal beds. “My dream would be to never allow the mother and baby to be separated,” she says.

Discovery Fund committed to mother and child health

In addition to the 2021 Discovery Foundation Award, the Discovery Fund in 2020 contributed R500,000 to the NGO to continue its life-saving work in maternal and child health.

“The Discovery Fund has made child and maternal health one of its funding focus areas,” says Ruth Lewin, head of corporate sustainability at Discovery. “We are committed to supporting organisations and initiatives like the SA Breastmilk Reserve that cover a mother and child’s health journey.”

Says Jordan: “We would not be here without the support of social investment partners like Discovery. The contribution that Discovery has made to our cause is tantamount to giving us a foundation from which to work. While the work we do is to support premature babies with donated breast milk, as a charity it remains an incredibly resource-intensive exercise and the financial means to do so saves lives.”

This article was paid for by the Discovery Foundation. It was created for the 2021 Discovery Foundation Awards and has been adapted for the Discovery Magazine.


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