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Buyer Beware: breast milk sold on the Internet may be contaminated

Posted by Dr. Claire McCarthy  October 21, 2013 08:45 AM

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breast milk.jpgBreast milk: it's the perfect food for babies. So it's understandable that some mothers who can't breastfeed, or choose not to, want to give their babies breast milk from another woman. After all, it's healthier than formula, right?

Not necessarily, says a study just released in the journal Pediatrics.

The concept is actually pretty ancient--it's a modern-day twist on wet nurses. And it's basically a good idea, because breast milk is uniquely designed to meet the nutritional needs of newborn humans. As much as companies try to make infant formula similar to breast milk, it will never actually be breast milk. 

But breast milk is a bodily fluid--and by definition, bodily fluids can carry the person's infections (including HIV), medications, toxins and other things that have entered the body. And breast milk can be contaminated with germs like any other food or drink if it isn't collected and stored properly. 

Milk banks that work with the Human Milk Banking Association of North America screen donors,  educate them in how to best collect, store and send milk--and then they pasteurize the milk to kill any bacteria. That means that breast milk from milk banks is generally pretty safe--but it's also pretty expensive. 

It's not surprising, then, that some parents turn to the Internet to find breast milk, figuring they can get it more cheaply and easily directly from donors. Some parents have other reasons for looking for a different source of breast milk; for example, Alicia Silverstone started a service for vegan women to donate breast milk to other vegan mothers who don't want the breast milk they feed their child to have any traces of animal products in it. Some parents might feel that getting breast milk directly from the donor, as opposed to from a milk bank, is safer. 

Researchers from Ohio wanted to know if it really is safer, so they checked 101 samples of breast milk they purchased through the Internet. They found that a whopping 74 percent were contaminated with bacteria. This could be very dangerous for infants, especially those born prematurely, or those with any medical problems. Many of the contaminated samples came from suppliers that advertised themselves as using safe and clean practices.

The Food and Drug Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics discourage getting breast milk this way exactly because of concerns like these. It's entirely unregulated, and you just can't be sure that the milk is collected or stored cleanly--or that the donor isn't sick or taking drugs. Yes, breast milk is great for babies. But if it's contaminated, or has medications or toxins in it, it's not good. Babies are better off with formula than with contaminated breast milk.

So spread the word: buyer beware. If you or someone you know is considering using donated breast milk, use a milk bank. At the very least, please talk to your doctor before using any breast milk that doesn't come from a milk bank. Don't take chances with a baby's health.

Is there something you'd like me to write about? Leave me a message on my Facebook page--and "like" the page for links to all my MD Mama blogs as well as my blogs on Thriving and Huffington Post. 

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About MD Mama

Claire McCarthy, M.D., is a pediatrician and Medical Communications Editor at Boston Children's Hospital . An assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and a senior editor for Harvard More »

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