German pediatricians have warned new parents against obtaining breast milk to feed their babies via social networking sites such as Facebook, cautioning the milk could be harmful. The Professional Association of Pediatricians said that although mothers milk was generally the best option for a newborn, mothers unable to breastfeed should not acquire it over the Internet. “Donors can be taking medicines or drugs, have infectious illnesses like AIDS or Hepatitis,” Wolfram Hartmann, president of the association, said in a written statement.
Most body fluids, tissues, and organs—semen, blood, livers, kidneys—are highly regulated by government authorities. But not breast milk. It’s considered a food, so it’s legal to swap, buy, or sell it nearly everywhere in the US. This accounts, in part, for the widely varying quality and safety standards in the online market for milk. For their part, Prolacta and nonprofit milk banks have rigorous screening processes for potential donors, including tests for drugs, hepatitis, and HIV. But Only the Breast and the volunteer sites, which see themselves more as communities than commodity markets, don’t screen donors or assume responsibility for the milk they help disseminate.
Whatever the source of the milk or its channel of distribution, the trend is clear: Human milk is being bought, sold, donated—and gratefully received—on an unprecedented scale. And as demand grows, the competition for every ounce is getting more fierce. Meanwhile, the donation-based milk-sharing sites—particularly Eats on Feets, which attracts a lot of Whole Foods-shopping earth mamas—see what they do as the continuation of an age-old practice. Women have breast-fed one another’s babies for millennia, they point out, and Internet-enabled milk swapping is just a 21st-century update. The FDA doesn’t see it in such benign terms. In November 2010, the agency issued a stern press release warning about the risks of feeding someone else’s bodily fluids to your baby: “When human milk is obtained directly from individuals or through the Internet, the donor is unlikely to have been adequately screened for infectious disease or contamination risk. In addition, it is not likely that the human milk has been collected, processed, tested, or stored in a way that reduces possible safety risks to the baby.”
Screening milk donors turns up a surprising number of infectious agents—pathogens that could be passed on to a baby. A 2010 Stanford University study examined data from 1,091 women who applied to donate milk to a bank in San Jose, California. It revealed that 3.3 percent were rejected after their blood samples tested positive for at least one of five serious infections: syphilis, HIV, hepatitis B, hepatitis C, and human T-cell lymphotropic virus. And if these pathogens are in a donor’s blood, they can be present in the milk, too.
Critics warn that these same disease agents are likely prevalent in milk that’s offered online. “Women are convinced that breast milk is somehow different from blood and that there aren’t any risks in sharing it with another woman’s baby,” says Updegrove, director of the milk bank in Austin. “But it’s an incredibly risky practice. Breast milk is a body fluid. Would you consider cutting open a vein and giving a direct transfusion?”
So what do you think about the trade or selling of breast milk? Do you consider it a problem?