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Harvard Commentaries
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Harvard Commentaries
Reviewed by the Faculty of Harvard Medical School


Study Finds Germs in Purchased Breast Milk


October 21, 2013

News Review From Harvard Medical School

October 21, 2013

News Review From Harvard Medical School -- Study Finds Germs in Purchased Breast Milk

Breast milk bought from milk sharing websites may be likely to contain bacteria, a new study suggests. Researchers tested 101 samples of breast milk bought from people who advertised on a U.S. milk sharing website. Nearly 3 out of 4 samples contained germs. These included several kinds that could make babies sick. About 1 in 5 contained cytomegalovirus. This usually causes a mild, flulike illness. However, in premature babies or those with compromised immune systems, the illness could be severe. Three samples contained salmonella, one cause of food poisoning. Researchers compared the purchased samples to samples of milk donated to a milk bank. Donors to milk banks are screened. Milk usually is pasteurized. However, the samples tested had not been pasteurized. Still, they had lower levels of bacteria than the samples bought from the milk-sharing site. The journal Pediatrics published the study online October 21. HealthDay News wrote about it.

 

By Henry H. Bernstein, D.O.
Harvard Medical School

 

What Is the Doctor's Reaction?

The Internet is great for many things. "Milk sharing" websites, where women buy human breast milk on their own, are not one of them.

Milk sharing could help supply a woman who is not able to make enough breast milk on her own. Women with a lot of breast milk sometimes donate their extra milk to a "milk bank." There, it gets pasteurized, which kills harmful germs in the milk.

Instead of a milk bank, though, websites that share breast milk also are becoming popular. Such websites play only one role -- to connect the donor and receiver. The donor sends the milk to the receiver and gets paid for it. It is up to the person buying the milk to protect herself and her children.

This is NOT a safe way to share breast milk. Researchers just published this finding in the journal Pediatrics.

Researchers bought 101 samples of breast milk from a popular milk sharing website. They tested each sample for germs.

  • Almost 3 out of 4 had high levels of bacteria.
  • Some had disease-causing bacteria.
  • Salmonella, a dangerous type of bacteria, was found in 3 of the samples.
  • About 1 out of 5 tested positive for cytomegalovirus, a common virus.

The researchers took note of different things that may cause contamination with germs:

  • Number of months since the milk was expressed
  • Time in transit
  • Shipping conditions, such as samples that arrived at the wrong temperature, without ice or in a damaged container

Researchers also looked at the advertisements donors had posted on the website to get a buyer's attention. Many mentioned that the donor was on a healthy diet, exercising and staying away from drugs. Others described the milk as "safe" or "great quality." There was no way to check whether these claims were true. They did not predict the amount of germs in the milk.

Lastly, the Internet samples were compared with samples from a milk bank that had not been pasteurized. The milk bank samples had fewer germs. Donors to milk banks are tested for diseases first. They are also clearly instructed on how to safely collect, store and ship their milk.

 

What Changes Can I Make Now?

Remember that human breast milk is the best food for your baby. Many good things pass from mother to baby with breastfeeding.

Feed your baby with your own breast milk whenever possible. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has information on how to properly express and store your breast milk.

If you are having trouble making enough breast milk, speak with your doctor. She can give you advice. She also may refer you to a lactation (breastfeeding) specialist.

If you do choose to feed your baby human milk other than your own, be careful.

  • Check first with the doctor about your baby's nutritional needs.
  • Use only milk from a milk bank that screens its donors.

Milk banks take important steps to make sure that the breast milk is safe. Donors are told how best to collect, store and ship milk. The milk is also pasteurized before it is distributed. Some states have their own safety guidelines for human milk banks. The Human Milk Banking Association of North America also has safety guidelines for its members.

Keep in mind that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends against feeding your baby breast milk that is:

  • Bought over the Internet
  • Received informally from another person

Breast milk received over the Internet or directly from another person may still have germs in it. The germs could make your baby sick. This is especially dangerous for babies who were born preterm or have immune systems that do not work right.

 

What Can I Expect Looking to the Future?

You can expect your doctor to continue to encourage breastfeeding. It is best to use your own breast milk as much as possible.

More research is still needed on the risks of milk sharing. Besides germs, babies also may be exposed to toxins and drugs.  

The FDA does not currently regulate the exchange of breast milk. Studies must be done to fully inform the FDA about the risks of milk sharing so as to better protect infants.

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