Mothers’ milk new bank’s currency

Holly Edmunds holds her son Aldrich Edmunds as he is fed her breast milk through a feeding tube in the NICU at MUSC in February 2014. Aldrich needed donated human breast milk before Edmunds could produce enough of her own milk to feed him. MUSC can now access donated breast milk from the Mother’s Milk Bank of South Carolina.

South Carolina’s first breast milk bank opened in North Charleston last week with a 34-liter donation — two coolers full — of frozen milk from an anonymous Georgetown mom.

While online breast milk transactions have become increasingly popular between moms who produce too much milk and moms who can’t produce enough, breast milk at this new milk bank won’t be sold to the general public. Instead, donated milk will be pasteurized on site, analyzed for nutrients, tested for safety at the Medical University of South Carolina and then distributed to neonatal intensive care units across the state that serve some of South Carolina’s smallest, sickest newborns.

“We want to encourage as many women as possible to breast feed,” said Beth De Santis, the state health department’s director for maternal and child health. “Breast-feeding helps people stay healthy.”

The benefits of breast milk are well documented. It boosts a newborn infant’s immune system, provides a low-cost source of nutrition and even helps some moms lose weight after delivery.

But it is particularly important for premature babies who will more likely die from a relatively rare disease called necrotizing entercolitis if they’re fed instant formula. The disease, which destroys a baby’s intestines, killed more than 150 infants in South Carolina in the past 20 years. In 2013, necrotizing entercolitis was a top 10 cause of infant mortality in this state.

Breast milk offers an easy way to prevent the disease, but the milk isn’t cheap and most premature babies in neonatal intensive care, while tiny, still need about 8 ounces a day. Some moms can’t pump that much.

For many years, MUSC has purchased breast milk for $5 an ounce from a nonprofit milk bank in Texas. Other hospitals have paid even more for milk from for-profit distributors. The new nonprofit Mother’s Milk Bank of South Carolina will charge $4 an ounce.

The donated milk in North Charleston will be sold and shipped to high-level hospital nurseries across the state. For now, it will be fed only to premature babies in hospitals who have been born very early and weigh less than 3 pounds, 3 ounces.

The price per ounce that the Mother’s Milk Bank of South Carolina will charge covers the cost to process donations and send the pasteurized milk to hospitals through FedEx. The milk bank will probably break even. Any profit will be used to expand the operation or to decrease the per-ounce price.

“I have learned more than I ever thought I would about starting a small business,” said Dr. Sarah Taylor, an MUSC neonatologist. She turned the milk bank into reality after the idea was first introduced at a 2013 South Carolina Neonatal Medical Consortium meeting.

“Someone said we need a milk bank,” Taylor said at the grand opening Thursday. “We all agreed. Then, it was like, ‘Whoa. How are we going to do this?’ ”

First, she needed to find about $200,000 to pay for a space and the expensive equipment. Taylor turned to the state Medicaid agency and its South Carolina Birth Outcomes Initiative for help, but the agency was initially reluctant to fund the project.

Medicaid, which pays for more than half of all births in South Carolina every year, eventually donated $50,000 to the milk bank. Nurses at Tidelands Health in Georgetown County, the South Carolina BlueCross BlueShield Foundation, the South Carolina Perinatal Association and other groups also contributed.

Now that the milk bank is up and running, donated milk is more important than money, Taylor said. “If we don’t have milk, we don’t have a bank.”

Ten “milk depots” have been set up across the state so that women can donate their excess breast milk. Some moms produce more milk than their healthy babies need.

Women must be screened and cleared for donation before their milk is accepted. They will not be compensated for their donations, but Taylor said the pay-off is immeasurable.

“As a neonatologist, I see the importance of this milk every day in the unit and how it helps these babies.”

Reach Lauren Sausser at 937-5598.