One of the most serious consequences of the pandemic has been the decline in the donation of breast milk. The Human Breast Milk Bank of Sion Hospital, one of Asia’s oldest, has seen a significant drop in donors since the beginning of 2020. According to data, while 1,000 litres were donated in 2018, the figure dropped to 526 litres in 2020. So far this year, only 325 litres have been donated.
Sion Hospital’s milk bank, which opened on November 27, 1989, typically receives 800 to 1,200 litres per year (about 3 to 4 litres each day). “The dip was primarily seen at the peak of the first wave, especially because no one wanted to visit the hospital,” said Dr Swati Manerkar, neonatologist and director of the Sion Hospital milk bank.
The number of donors in 2018 and 2019 was 7,700 and 7,300, respectively. The number reduced to 6,600 in 2020 and is 3,500 till date this year.
“Our donors are divided in two segments. In the first category, we have those mothers who deliver at the hospital. They donate before being discharged. The other category includes the mothers who visit our OPD with their newborns for follow-ups or vaccinations,” explained Dr Manerkar.
She further said, “We could not collect breast milk from Covid-positive mothers or anyone with symptoms of the infection. We still do not know whether the virus passes through breast milk. A substantial number of mothers who were delivering in our hospital were testing positive. The OPDs also suffered.”
“There was a need to prioritise because donor milk is a scarce resource. For a brief period, we provided it to the smallest, sickest and most vulnerable babies instead of being liberal. There is always a buffer stock of 35-40 litres. We could just about tide over. By the time the stock reached a single-digit figure, things started getting better donation- wise,” she added.
Shortage of manpower
Dr Manerkar said they also had to deal with shortage of manpower at the milk bank but they ensured that the available resources were optimally used.
“We had very strong counselling services. We had one counsellor visiting the Covid-19 maternity ward every day and asking mothers to breastfeed their babies. We tried to ensure that the mother provides her own milk to the baby and therefore the need for donor milk decreases. You need donor milk to tide over the period for which the mother cannot breastfeed. This was strongly advocated. And our counsellors also spoke to the family member who would be present with the mother just to transfer the milk in a container to the baby in the NICU,” said Dr Manerkar.
She added that they are slowly returning to normalcy and the number of donors is improving.
“Things have started to show up. The number of Covid-positive mothers has gone down and we are closer to what we were in the pre-Covid days. We had 30-50 mothers donating milk every day before the pandemic, and slowly we are matching up to that number,” she said.