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World News

Singapore launches first donor breast milk bank



For 35-year-old Madam Nor Adliyah Haryanie, the birth of her baby boy in July via an emergency caesarian-section came as a shock, since she had previously had three normal-term babies. But what was even more stressful was that her son was born prematurely at 30 weeks, weighing just 800 grams.

Worst of all, her body was just not producing enough breast milk.

“I kept asking myself what was wrong with me that I could not pump enough milk for my child,” Mdm Haryanie said.

“Imagine looking at the bottle and there’s nothing when you pump. And when you’re at the hospital pumping beside other mothers and they have so much milk supply. I kept comparing and was upset and kept thinking I was not a good mum.”

Her son is currently on formula milk for pre-term babies, but that could change within the month, with the launch of a three-year pilot for Singapore’s first donor breast milk bank.

The programme, a collaboration between KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital (KKH) and Temasek Foundation Cares, was launched by former Speaker of Parliament and presidential hopeful, Halimah Yacob on Thursday (Aug 17). Also present at the event was another presidential hopeful Mr Mohamed Salleh Marican. Mr Salleh is a Temasek Cares board member.

The milk bank will provide breast milk for premature and sick neonates from donor mothers. In a joint media release, KKH and Temasek Foundation Cares said they hope to recruit 375 mothers who are willing to donate their excess breast milk supply. The foundation has set aside S$1.37 million for the milk bank, which will collect, screen, process and store breast milk from donor mothers.


According to guidelines by the World Health Organisation, babies should be exclusively breastfed for the first six months, as it is a vital source of nutrition and antibodies.
“For premature babies, they have very premature immune and digestive systems,” said KKH’s head of neonatology, Dr Chua Mei Chien.

“For these premature babies, exposure to cow’s milk can expose them to a lot of problems including feeding intolerance and the potential development of a condition known as Necrotising Enterocolitis (NEC).”

This is a potentially lethal disease in which the intestines of infants can become damaged due to tissue death. Dr Chua said the fatality rate in infants afflicted with the disease can be between 30 and 50 per cent.

Some 350 “very low birth weight” infants receive neonatal intensive care in local public Hospitals, and for many mothers of pre-term babies, it takes them a period of days or weeks before their bodies are able to produce enough milk. In fact, KKH said up to 80 per cent of sick infants in the neonatal intensive care unit and the special care nursery have to drink formula milk for premature babies because their mothers are unable to produce enough milk.

“The provision of safe, pasteurised donor breast milk is aimed at reducing the risk of potential complications, while optimising their immunity, development and overall health,” a joint statement by KKH and TCF read.


Dr Chua, who is also director of the milk bank programme said unlike donated milk from informal milk sharing groups, milk from donor mums is undergoes various “stringent” screening processes.

For example, donor mums will be tested for diseases such as HIV, hepatitis B and C and syphilis. Once they pass the test, donor mums will be given bags and ice packs with which to store the milk. They will also be provided information on how to store the breast milk.

When the milk is brought in, it will go through a thawing and testing process. A batch of the donated milk will be tested for bacterial contamination. Once tests come back normal, the donated milk will be pasteurised and sent once more for a microbiology test. It is then stored in a freezer until it is dispensed.

At no point is donated milk from different sources mixed together into one batch, although the infant may receive milk from different donors during each feed.

Dr Chua said about 20 mothers have so far indicated their interest to donate their breast milk. To be eligible to donate, donor mothers would not only have to undergo screening, but also ensure they are exclusively breastfeeding babies who are less than one year of age.


Dr Chua said that for the first year, the milk bank will supply donated milk to pre-term infants admitted to KKH. That’s because while the rate of premature births in Singapore is about 9 per cent, KKH sees up to 13.5 per cent of pre term infants.

Pre-term infants admitted to the Singapore General Hospital (SGH) and the National University Hospital will also benefit from donated milk in the second and third year of the pilot programme.

Altogether, some 900 pre term babies are expected to benefit from the programme.

To qualify for the donated milk, pre-term infants have to be born at less than 32 weeks of gestation and weigh 1.8kg or less at birth.

Speaking at the launch, Mdm Halimah, who was a founding board member of Temasek Cares urged all able mothers to come forward and donate their excess breast milk. The mother of five also reassured Muslim mothers that their pre-term babies can indeed receive milk from the milk bank.

“The Fatwa Committee of MUIS has issued a fatwa that using donor milk from the milk bank for the purposes of preserving the well-being of the infant does not establish kinship,” Mdm Halimah said.

“Muslims, therefore, are also encouraged to contribute to the milk bank.”

For Mdm Haryanie, the reassurance also goes a long way. “As a Muslim woman, that was my concern because if I said yes (to donated milk), other people may ask, ‘hey how come as a Muslim, you don’t mind’? So when they (MUIS) said it’s okay, I felt reassured going ahead with the programme.”

With the launch, Singapore joins about 40 countries to operate official milk banks. Channel NewsAsia understands the milk bank will start dispensing donated milk within the month.

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