A staff member of the South African Breastmilk Reserve (SABR) in Johannesburg holds up a sachet of frozen donated breast milk in Johannesburg. The Jharkhand government in India is setting up a human milk bank to help combat the high rate of malnutrition among newborns in the state. Image Credit: AFP

Patna: The Jharkhand government is setting up a human milk bank to help combat the high rate of malnutrition, mortality and morbidity among newborns.

The government believes the idea will significantly bring down the infant mortality rate in the state. A latest report of the Sample Registration Survey says as many as 30 out of every 1,000 children die every year in Jharkhand.

“We are working on a proposal to set up a human milk bank in the state to arrange milk for those mothers who are unable to breastfeed their babies,” state health secretary Arun Singh said. According to him, the breast milk donated by the lactating mothers would be stored in this milk bank. “This will help fight malnutrition among the infants,” he added.

Health department officials said the first such bank in the state was being set up in Ranchi as a pilot project. Based on the success of the project, it will be implemented in other parts of the state, the officials said. They said the donated milk will be stored in bottles in specially designed deep freezers.

According to them, a massive awareness campaign will be launched on the pattern of blood donation campaigns to convince lactating mothers to donate their breast milk to the bank and save the newborns. “We will prepare a list of such lactating mothers willing to donate milk and contact them to share it with the bank. We will also conceal their identity,” a health department official said.

As per a report, only about 16 per cent of the newborns in Jharkhand are fortunate enough to have the full dose of breast milk of their mothers which is blamed for high incidence of malnutrition and mortality rate in the state.

Increased immunity

Dr Vinita Kumari, a prominent gynaecologist, said mothers’ milk is the “nectar of life” which helps infants fight many diseases. “Many children die because they do not get mother’s milk within the first hour of their birth. In such a situation, the mother’s milk bank can help save many lives in the state,” she said. Doctors said mother’s milk is also important for increasing immunity among children and may serve as a protection against COVID-19.

Minister for Women, Child Development & Social Security Joba Majhi said there has been little improvement in nutrition outcomes in Jharkhand between 2006 and 2016. While the initiation of breastfeeding indicators shows substantial improvement over the past 10 years, many infants are still deprived of the highly nutritious first milk (colostrum) and the antibodies it contains.

“Breastfeeding practices in Jharkhand need further improvement to save more lives and extend benefits to the children and breastfeeding is not the sole responsibility of the mother. Each one of us whether doctors, nurses, family members, especially husbands support play a key role,” the minister said. She also explained how the majority of newborns are not breastfed within one hour of their birth, rather many are fed water, milk from cattle, honey etc which is not good for the health of the newborns.

The minister said the only ideal food for a child below 6 months is mother’s breast milk. “It is safe, clean and contains antibodies which help protect against many common childhood illnesses,” she said.