The breast express: Landmark service gets milk to preemies in need

Stefni Herbert

Babies are born prematurely every day. In fact, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 15 million babies are born prematurely (before 37 weeks) each year, and the tally continues to rise.

Premature births are also one of the leading causes of death among children under the age of five. Some are attributed birth complications, but others are the result of illnesses, such as pneumonia, malaria and diarrhoea.

Breast milk is the number one source of nutrition and antibodies to help premature babies build and strengthen their immune system, along with helping growth and development of underdeveloped organs and functions of their tiny bodies.

Premature babies spend months in the neonatal wards at hospitals after their mothers are discharged. These babies' mothers are required to make frequent trips to and from the hospital.

The continuous struggle

An audit within the unit found that most moms come from Hanover Park, Gugulethu and Mitchells Plain. Travelling to and from the hospital is not easy for them because some have to take more than one taxi, bus or train to get to the hospital. Some simply cannot afford the trek.

While the hospital does have limited lodging facilities, this isn't enough to host all moms with premature babies. Groote Schuur Hospital has 75 beds in the neonatal unit, according to neonatologist, Dr Lloyd Tooke.

This makes it challenging for moms of premature babies to provide milk on a regular basis for their babies.

Got milk?

The Newborns Trust, Scully Scooters, Relate Bracelets and Consol glass have come together to establish a project – the Mom's Milk on the Move (MoM).

Moms are given jars to hold the milk they send to the hospitals for their baby, or milk they would like to donate to the hospital's milk bank. Their jars are labelled with a sticker so that all milk can be tracked.

One of two scooter riders then collects the milk from the mom at her home and delivers it to the hospital, where it goes through a pasteurising process and then to the babies.

The breast express? Landmark service gets milk to

Little warriors

Premature babies have been called little fighters because they're constantly fighting off death, and breast milk is known to be their number one weapon.

CEO of Groote Schuur Hospital and Chairperson for the Newborns Trust, Dr Bhavna Patel, said: "The internal organs aren't as developed yet for them to be able to digest powdered milk or other forms of milk, so they need their moms’ breast milk to grow and make them healthier.

"These babies stay in the unit for three to four months until they reach a suitable weight before they can go home. The parents cannot come in daily. Some of them live far away, but even those who live close by don’t have the resources to travel and bring their milk in every day."

The WHO states that one of the illnesses premature babies die from is necrotising enterocolitis – where the gut and intestinal tissues are damaged and begin to die. This is usually because the premature infant is given formula instead of breast milk.

While formula may be fine for babies who have been carried to term, premature infants' intestines are too immature to process formula correctly, often with fatal results.

"We have about 500 babies who weigh less than 1.5kg a year, and more than 85% of them survive. They are able to go home in good health. They come back for checkups and do really well. I think that as these babies get more breast milk, that 85% figure may increase," said Tooke.

Looking to the future

Scully Scooters' two riders will be travelling to various areas in the Cape to collect milk, and even though every precaution will be taken to ensure their safety, project managers and staff realise there is only so much they can do. MoM are working towards growing the initiative and have hopes of it expanding across the country.

"We worry about the safety of the riders on the scooters and the areas, like the red zones they would have to visit, but there is always a vision for growth and improvement. Because we are a state-owned facility, we can only fund certain things, and we are dependent on the goodwill of people to come forward and offer their time, funds and resources," said Dr Patel.

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