First four milk banks in Africa now operational

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The first four Ncelisa human milk banks located at Netcare maternity units are now fully operational.

It follows an 18-month collaborative project by a group of clinical and technical advisors under the leadership of neonatologist, Dr Ricky Dippenaar and Netcare’s human milk bank co-ordinator, Linda Pretorius.

In a first for the African continent, the team behind this life-saving Netcare initiative recently extended their human milk bank service offering to include colostrum donations for babies in critical need. Produced by the mother in the initial days after birth, colostrum, also referred to as ‘liquid gold’ owing to its yellowish orange colour and highly beneficial properties, is eventually replaced by mature human milk around the third to fourth day after birth.

Less than three weeks since the inception of the colostrum project, the fruits of the team’s efforts are already paying off, with colostrum donations having provided a much-needed lifeline to as many as thirteen severely compromised premature babies in various healthcare facilities throughout South Africa.

Commenting on this ground-breaking project which she describes as a labour of love, Pretorius says the technological innovation and development behind the project is testament to the creativity and passion of the team of dedicated individuals who felt compelled to find a world-class, cost-effective and sustainable solution that can make a meaningful difference to the lives of the countless babies born prematurely.

“The name Netcare Ncelisa was specifically chosen as it represents a call to feed in the Nguni culture. It describes the support, which is offered to new mothers by the older, more experienced women in the community. Ncelisa defines the role Netcare is looking to fulfil for mothers and their babies,” explains Pretorius.

“In addition to complying with the stringent regulations set out by the South African Department of Heath requiring human milk to be tracked and traced from donor to recipient, the idea behind starting the in-house Netcare Ncelisa human milk banks is to ensure that as many babies as possible receive age appropriate milk. Here the aim is to closely align the donor-recipient matching process to ensure better outcomes for these vulnerable babies.

“Research in fact indicates that babies who receive age appropriate breastmilk have higher IQs and achieve better neurological scores later in life. More importantly, it is babies who are compromised in some or the other way who receive the most benefit from particularly colostrum and age appropriate human milk, and this can play an invaluable role in speeding up their growth and recovery, ensuring these babies can go home to their families much sooner,” she explains.

Considering World Health Organisation statistics which indicate that approximately 1.1m babies die annually due to prematurity and complications, neonatologist, Dr Ricky Dippenaar, who is world-renowned for his expertise with micro-premature neonates and practises at Netcare Blaauwberg Hospital, believes having access to colostrum donations will do much to curb this growing figure.

“This baby super-food has been shown to be hugely beneficial to the health and wellbeing of newborns, and can potentially even be life-saving when it comes to babies born prematurely or with health complications, and for babies whose mothers, for whatever reasons, are unable to produce breastmilk. It provides not only perfect nutrition tailored to the exact needs of a newborn, but also contains high concentrations of antibodies which can destroy disease-causing bacteria and viruses,” says Dippenaar.

The system and technology underpinning the now up-and-running Ncelisa human milk banks is not only wholly South African sourced and developed, which is impressive in itself, but due to the need to use water during the pasteurisation process, great pains have been taken by the project team to ensure the banks are environmentally sustainable and water wise. This is particularly important in areas such as the Western Cape where dry conditions are cause for concern.

Pretorius says the project team managed to reduce the water consumption during the pasteurisation cycle from an average industry use of 170 litres per cycle to around seven litres per cycle. “Netcare management were very explicit in specifying that we kept sustainability top-of-mind throughout the development and implementation of the human milk bank project. And in addition to saving water, the bottles used to store the human milk are made from glass and are recycled, thereby resulting in no waste going to land-fills.”

“The fact that our research only identified one other collecting and storing colostrum project, in Greece, meant we had to do a great deal of research and development ourselves. Part of our research involved approaching experts at the Onderstepoort Veterinary Institute who have working knowledge of the bovine colostrum pasteurisation process that currently takes place in the bovine milk banks established on various dairy farms around the country.

“As it turns out the pasteurisation process is in fact very similar when it comes to human breastmilk, and based on that we recruited a team of local technical experts to develop both the pasteuriser, storage facilities, as well as the online donor-to-recipient tracking system, thereby putting Netcare and South Africa at the very forefront of human colostrum and human milk bank expertise,” comments Pretorius.

The life-saving potential provided by human milk, and in particular colostrum donations is, according to Dippenaar, yet to be fully realised. “Despite being a relatively new initiative, the Netcare Ncelisa human milk banks are already showing tremendous promise. We have already seen really positive results in the babies who have been fed donated colostrum,” Dippenaar adds.

With all the knowledge, research and technological development at our disposal in this day and age, Dippenaar believes it makes sense to not only apply it to collecting and storing breastmilk but also colostrum. “Furthermore, the fact that we were able to implement such a stringent quality and tracking system will do much to enhance confidence, thereby promoting more buy-in from the medical fraternity and promoting increased colostrum prescriptions. The real value of the system is that it is self-sustaining in that we are seeing mother’s whose babies were born prematurely go on to donate their own breastmilk,” says Dippenaar.

This unequivocally and proudly home-grown project has also opted to recruit, train and up-skill previously unemployed women under the age of 35 with the intention of providing them with a specialised knowledge and skillset that will undoubtedly become increasingly in demand. The women will become human milk bank coordinators and will be responsible for receiving, processing and despatching of milk and colostrum donations.

“Our heartfelt thanks goes to our technical team of advisors – Cozatec Software Development, Minus 40 Refrigeration and Symbiotec Pasteurisation. They have really gone above and beyond our every expectation to deliver on the project specifications and without them none of this would have been possible,” says Pretorius.

“Ultimately, it is about saving innocent lives and it is a project that we are not only proud to be part of, but one that is really close to all of our hearts. We are really excited to see what the future holds for our premature babies, knowing that at the end of the day we have done our utmost to give them the very best possible start in life through our human milk and colostrum initiative,” concludes Dippenaar.

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