Some moms who are not able to nurse their babies and don’t want to feed their newborn formula, may turn to the Internet for help.They are able to purchase breast milk online or receive it free from mothers who have an abundant supply. But is the human milk bought and sold online safe for babies?
Not according to Sarah A. Keim, a researcher at The Research Institute at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio. Her team purchased and tested 101 samples of breast milk from milk sharing websites. They found that almost three quarters probably weren't safe for babies, especially preemies.
A rise in milk sharing websites and ads promoting the buying and selling of mother’s milk peeked the researchers interest and left them wondering whether the milk being sold or donated online was actually safe for infants. The milk typically sells for $1.00 to $3.00 an ounce.
For the new study, 495 inquiries were sent to milk sharing websites. 191 sellers never replied and 41 stopped corresponding after one reply, Keim wrote. Some 79 sellers agreed to send milk but never followed through and eight accepted payment but didn’t send the promised product.
Of the 101 samples analyzed, 72 were contaminated with bacteria and would not have met criteria for feeding without pasteurization set by the Human Milk Banking Association of North America, or HMBANA.
HMBANA is a network of milk banks that are typically set up by hospitals or health care providers. Breast milk is distributed to preemies and babies with medical conditions. Because of low supply, the exchange requires a medical prescription. All donors are strictly screened and medically tested, and the milk is pasteurized to prevent contamination that could harm a baby, said Kim Updegrove, the president of HMBANA. That causes some slight loss of nutrition, she acknowledges, but reduces risk.
“I don’t think that the general public understands human milk as a bodily fluid that can relay dangerous bacteria and viruses,” she said.
Breast milk can transmit healthy bacteria and immune system boosting agents as well as serious infections such as HIV or tuberculosis or drugs in the mother’s system.
Seventy-four percent of the study samples either had disease-causing bacteria like E. coli or harmful levels of bacteria such as Streptococci. Those risks, combined with the evidence of harmful bacteria, should make new moms think twice about buying milk from strangers, Updegrove said.
In about 20 percent of the samples, cytomegalovirus, or CMV, which can cause serious illness in premature or sick babies, was detected. The contamination was associated with poor milk collection, storage or shipping practices, the analysis showed.
The problem, Keim said, is that the milk samples exchanged contained not only healthful bacteria, which are necessary, but high levels of bacteria that could cause harm.
“The pathogenic bacteria, those are the ones that are the most concerning,” she said. All of the sharing sites urge women to collect, store and send milk in sanitary ways and to offer medical proof that the milk is safe. It's not clear, however, how many suppliers follow those instructions.
“We were very surprised by our findings,” said Keim. “Besides bacterial contamination and viruses that could be in the milk, you could be exposing your infant to chemical contaminants, pharmaceuticals or drugs as well.”
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 77 percent of U.S. babies are breast fed at least once. Health officials routinely urge new mothers to breast feed exclusively for 6 months then continue while introducing other foods for a year.
Milk sharing website owners have responded to the study in various ways. Some milk sharing portals are looking at changing how they share milk, and others are enraged, claiming that even reporting the findings of the study is an attack on breastfeeding.
“A blatant attack on women attempting to feed their babies is cruel and you should feel ashamed of yourself for spreading misinformation,” Khadijah Cisse, a midwife who founded MilkShare, a portal for connecting women cited in the new research, said in an email to NBC News. “Anyone can type up any bit of lies they want and make claims. Breast milk is supposed to contain bacteria.”
Emma Kwansica, founder of Human Milk 4 Human Babies, says that the women who share milk in 130 communities in 52 countries aren’t strangers engaged in commerce.
“Peer-to-peer milk-sharing is really about families sharing at a hyper-local level. This study could not have been more opposite of what our moms are doing in the world today,” she said. “If there are babies getting sick from milk sharing, I would know. There are no sick babies.”
After being contacted by NBC News, representatives of OnlyTheBreast.com said they intend to halt informal breast milk exchanges and revamp their organization.
"We have made the decision to transition away from offering breast milk classified ads and in the near future completely remove them," site founder Glenn Snow said in a statement.
Instead, officials said they are working to form a new milk bank program, Milk for Babies, that would partner with a laboratory to offer screened milk while still permitting donors to be reimbursed.
"We are convinced that a more safety-centered approach must be taken to secure milk sharing," officials added.