Breast milk bank could be in Héma-Québec's future

Quebec's blood and tissue bank may soon be storing human breast milk for babies born prematurely to mothers who can't breastfeed.

Héma-Québec may soon be storing human breast milk for babies born prematurely to mothers who can’t breastfeed.

Quebec health minister Réjean Hébert wants the National Assembly to give the province’s blood and tissue bank the green light on the project.

Héma-Québec president Dr. Jean De Serres said that of the 1,000 or so premature babies born in Quebec every year, between three and 10 die.

He and Hébert think creating a breast milk bank will help save some of those lives, as well as improve the chances of babies born with complications, particularly those born before 32 weeks.

De Serres said breast milk would be available to any premature baby whose mother couldn’t breastfeed.

"We don’t care what the reason is. If the baby needs it, then we will provide it," he said.

If the project is approved, the province will be looking for 260 volunteer mothers to donate their extra milk.

De Serres said that about 6,000 new mothers a year already donate their umbilical cord blood, which is rich in stem cells.

They’ll be the first people Héma-Québec goes to for breast milk.

"The mother is recruited in the hospital, and at the hospital she will be given instructions at birth," De Serres said.

The process would consist of collecting milk at home, freezing it and having a courier deliver it to Héma-Québec.

Once received, it would be pasteurized, a process Hébert said actually improves its digestibility.

De Serres said currently, premature babies born to women who can’t breastfeed — whether due to illness, lack of milk or other factors — are fed a commercial preparation.

But the nutrients present in breast milk help newborns fight illness and complications.

He said some people desperate for it are turning to eBay, which is considered an unsafe practice.

If Héma-Québec manages the donation and distribution of breast milk, De Serres said they will test donors for certain viruses and illnesses to ensure their milk is safe.

"It’s the best choice, and it’s better than the current situation," De Serres said.

Héma-Québec already handles donations of blood, stem cells, corneas and human cardiac valves.