Photograph — STEFAN HEUNIS/AFP/Getty Images

Kenya has one of the highest rates of neonatal mortality in the world. According to the African Population and Health Research Centre (APHRC), Kenya has a neonatal death rate of 22 deaths per 1,000 live births, and an estimated 40,000 annual deaths in the first month of life, mainly due to high preterm and low birth weight (LBW) rates. 

In a bid to improve these statistics and focus on a healthy start to life, Kenya’s Ministry of Health in partnership with US-based NGO PATH has established a breast/human milk bank at Pumwani Maternity Hospital in Nairobi. The first for the country and the entire East African region, the establishment which started operations in March, has so far recorded notable results. 

Hospital staff told VOA that although the project is still very young with only 58 babies having benefitted from the milk bank, “the neonatal mortality rate is going down drastically,” and more mothers are leaving the hospital with healthy newborns. 

For babies to achieve optimal growth, development and health, the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of their lives. In the event that a mother is ill, absent, or unable to breastfeed her child for whatever reason, the WHO recommends that such babies be fed with human milk from milk banks. Same for preterm and low birth weight babies. 

It is for this reason the global health organization has called for the establishment of human milk banks all over the world to provide safe donated human milk and ensure timely access for at-risk infants. Human milk contains antibodies that help combat diseases and has the greatest impact on child survival. Exclusive breastfeeding has the potential to prevent an estimated 820,000 child deaths globally.

Prior to setting up the milk bank in Kenya, APHRC conducted a study on the feasibility and acceptability of human milk banking in Nairobi. The study, which involved about 900 mothers of children less than three years of age, revealed that a majority of women (90 percent) were positive about the concept of human milk banking even though it was new to them. But while 80 percent indicated that they would donate their breast milk to a milk bank, only 60 percent said they would allow their babies to be fed with donated breask milk.

How does a milk bank work?

At milk banks, donors are screened and tested for a number of diseases that can be transmitted through breast milk. Once they are cleared, the milk is expressed via a machine, pasteurised to kill microorganisms without altering its nutritional composition, then frozen and stored at -20c.

When it is needed, it is thawed to room temperature and by the prescription of a qualified health professional, given to babies, particularly sick preterm babies, preterm babies, sick term babies, and lastly to term babies without access to their mother’s milk. 

After South Africa, which has more than 20 breast/human milk banks, Kenya is the second country to establish a milk bank in Sub-Saharan Africa. Globally, there are over 500 breast/human milk banks in 37 countries. These milk banks save their countries a ton of money in healthcare costs by erasing the costs of having to treat babies for illnesses that they may develop in the absence of their mother’s milk. 

Hopefully, the impact made by the facility at Pumwani Maternity Hospital, Nairobi, in such a short period will spur the establishment of more breast milk banks in Kenya and the rest of sub-Saharan Africa.

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