Breast Milk Donation Backlash in Haiti

The Human Milk Banking Association of North America (HMBANA) reportedly has been asked to retract its urgent call for breast milk donations for premature infants in Haiti. The Emergency Nutrition Network (ENN) says the donations contradict best practices for babies in emergencies and the Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA) said the donations create an “unfeasible and unsafe intervention” due to problems of transportation, screening, supply and storage, according to the MSNBC article “Call for Donations of Breast Milk in Haiti Goes Bust.” Time also asks “Will Donating Breast Milk Help Haitian infants?

I have nothing but respect and deference for the ENN and the experienced relief agencies on the ground in Haiti. The breastfeeding activist community understands that breastfeeding, relactation, and wet nurses are the short-term and the long-term, sustainable methods of infant feeding after such a disaster. That being said, I am going to dig my heels in on this issue of breast milk donation and say, respectfully, “CHILL people!” Several points come to mind:

1. No one is talking about donating milk to be sent willy-nilly throughout Haiti. Of course that would be unfeasible and contrary to best practices, just as such a donation of artificial baby milk would be. So far we’re talking about a small donation to a controlled facility aboard a US Navy ship. Beyond that, HMBANA says it wants “to be prepared to provide donor milk if UNICEF, the Red Cross, WHO or other international organizations involved on the front lines were to contact us.”

2. Concerns about screening and distribution and storage are unfounded. The milk that has been sent already was screened by the HMBANA and again, distributed to one location.

3. The statements by the ENN and OFDA are having some very unfortunate consequences. “[T]he staff on the U.S. Navy ship said they haven’t used the milk out of concerns raised by OFDA and other agencies. Mothers aboard the Comfort are urged to nurse their own babies and there’s infant formula available to children whose mothers cannot or will not breast-feed, said Lt. David Shark, a U.S. Navy spokesman.” (emphasis mine). Are other people smacking their heads right now? “There’s infant formula available to children whose mothers cannot or will not breast-feed.” Screened donor human milk is far better for those children than infant formula!

4. There is an urgent need for donations of human milk to the non-profit HMBANA milk banks for premature and sick babies right here in the United States and in Canada. I’m just going to come right out and say it: the call for milk donations was a way to raise awareness about that need and boost donations to benefit babies here. The call for milk donations for Haiti, and the subsequent updated press release, made it quite clear that much of the donated milk will be used to benefit babies right here in the United States and Canada.

5. In light of the backlash against the donations, perhaps it was not the best idea to use the disaster in Haiti to call attention to the shortage of donated human milk at the HMBANA milk banks, but it would have been nice had the relief agencies taken the opportunity to respond to the call with a carefully worded response instead of a thanks-but-no-thanks that amounts to a slap in the face. Either some key quotes were left out of the MSNBC article, or the ENN, OFDA, and the American Red Cross missed an opportunity to talk about the importance of breastfeeding and relactation in an emergency, the dire need for human milk donations in the United States and Canada, and the danger that donations of artificial baby milk pose in Haiti.

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    • Jill

      Thanks for such thorough coverage of a very important issue. I agree with you, I’m disappointed in wherever the breakdown in communication lies – I suspect with the Red Cross but it is hard to be sure. I am hopeful, though, that these conversations have brought more awareness about the existence of, and donation needs of, milk banks.

      My heart breaks when I hear the news of orphans and children in Haiti, but as a new mother myself, I especially tear up every time I think about the many women who have given birth there in the last few weeks and are struggling to care for their new infants and themselves. I hope they are getting proper nutrition and breastfeeding support!

    • Valerie W. McClain

      What are the ethics behind a PR campaign that states there is an urgent need for donor milk for Haitian infants but knows that the infrastructure makes that unfeasible? The reality of this PR Campaign is that this “urgent” call for donations increased breastmilk supplies at donor milk banks. It was of benefit to American babies not Haitian babies. Where kind of gift is that? What is the justification for using a tragedy to promote a cause, even if it is a worthy cause? Is it the ends justify the means?

    • Graeme Gibson, D.C.

      Hi there. I just came across your blog today after I did some research into an article that supports breast feeding. My wife and I have our second on the way, and although I am a proponent I always like to keep up with recent information.

      It is unbelievable what the majority of people consider the “essentials” when it comes to health, especially for a baby/newborn. Without going on a tangent, I wanted to just leave a quote to a study about nursing and rotavirii.

      The children of Haiti certainly could use our help by way of common sense.

      “Rotavirus vaccine cuts deaths of Mexican babies from diarrhoea by 40%,” states a January, 2010, British Medical Journal headline summarizing two studies.(1) Yet, a study of Brazilian children finds that exclusive breastfeeding cuts diarrhea cases in this similarly developing nation by a whopping 90% (1 / 9.41), versus a diet of formula and/or other foods.(2)

      A study on the cost of breastfeeding promotion programs for Brazil and Mexico accounted a 30 to 40 cent cost per birth for breastfeeding promotion programs.(3) The vaccine costs $190 for a series of 3 oral Rotovirus doses. The vaccine also leads to a substantial increase in cases of intussusception, a dangerous intestinal condition where part of the intestine folds in, inside itself. Treatment costs and lives lost from this side effect of the vaccine should be considered as well.

      For more on the many ways breastfeeding acts as the ultimate ‘vaccine’ against all of infant (and later life) maladies, see Palmer’s excellent book, The Baby Bond.


      1 A. Gutland, “Rotavirus vaccine cuts deaths of Mexican babies from diarrhoea by 40%,” BMJ 2010 Jan 28, doi:10.1136/bmj.c511.

      2. H.S. Maranhão, et al., “The epidemiological and clinical characteristics and nutritional development of infants with acute diarrhoea, in north-eastern Brazil,” Ann Trop Med Parasitol, 2008 Jun;102(4):357-65.

      3. S. Horton, et al., “Breastfeeding promotion and priority setting in health,” Health Policy Plan, 1996 Jun;11(2):156-68.