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Buying breast milk

Portfolio politics

Louise Newson

Monday, 30 March 2015

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breast pump_shutterstock_156650966.jpgWhere once milk banks were the preserve of hospitals, which use donated human milk to treat premature or ill babies whose mothers cannot produce milk themselves, now independent, non-profit milk banks are being used by parents of healthy babies to offer their children what they believe to be the best nutritional start in life.

I had no idea until last week that it is possible to buy breast milk over the internet. Obviously there are numerous advantages of breast milk compared to formula, however, there are clear disadvantages of buying breast milk online.

After reading an editorial in the BMJ (BMJ 2015; 350:h1485) I learnt that around three quarters of women who are unable to breastfeed are now looking to the internet for guidance. There are numerous sites that not only give advice but also deal with the buying and selling of breast milk.

Selling breast milk can be very lucrative – I read about one lady who was selling her milk £12.50 for a bottle and had already made over £3,500.

Although women who cannot breastfeed and want to give their baby breast milk can obtain breast milk from breast banks, online milk is often a cheaper option.  There are also some people who buy and consume breast milk for their own perceived gain – for example people with cancer, some body builders.

Brest milk bought over the internet is not generally as safe as it is not regulated. The milk is not necessarily pasteurised or tested for infectious diseases. One study found that around one fifth of breast milk bought online was positive for cytomegalovirus. There is an increased risk of this milk containing other infectious diseases, such as hepatitis and HIV. It is also far more likely to be contaminated with other substances, even illegal drugs in some cases.

It is important that we, as healthcare professionals, are aware of the potential dangers of breast milk bought over the internet so we can advise our patients appropriately and warn them of the potential dangers. The marketing of human milk surely needs to be regulated properly.

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Louise Newson

Louise is a part-time GP in Solihull, as well as a writer for numerous medical publications, including www.patient.co.uk. She is an Editor and Reviewer for e-learning courses for the RCGP. She is an Editor for Geriatric Medicine journal and the British Journal of Family Medicine. Louise has contributed to various healthcare articles in many different newspapers and magazines and is the spokesperson for The Information Standard. She has also done television and radio work. Louise is a medical consultant for Maverick TV and has participated regularly in ‘Embarrassing Bodies Live from the Clinic’. Louise has three young children and is married to a consultant urological surgeon. Although her spare time is limited she enjoys practising ashtanga yoga regularly and loves road cycling – she has raised over £2K for a local charity, Molly Olly Wishes by competing in a 120km cycle ride!

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