As part of a three-year pilot project – sponsored by philanthropic organisation Temasek Foundation Cares – Singapore has launched its first donor milk bank at KK Women's and Children's Hospital (KKH).

Over this period, a total of 375 breastfeeding mothers will be recruited to benefit 900 sick and premature babies (born before 32 weeks of gestation). The milk can be obtained free-of-charge for the time being.

Pasteurised donor milk to better long-term health

Neonatologist at KKH and director of the programme, Dr Chua Mei Chien said the milk will be processed in accordance with strict protocols. The SGD1.37 million programme will adapt guidelines that are widely implemented by established milk banks in developed countries, she elaborated.

The launch stems from many sick and premature neonates who have been fed formula milk – partially or exclusively – due to the inability of their mothers to lactate. Prior to discharge, neonates born before 32 weeks gestation must be hospitalised for roughly two months.

Up to 80% of new borns in the neonatal intensive care unit and special care nursery have to take formula milk at KKH. “Premature babies have very immature immune and digestive systems. For these premature babies, exposure to cow's milk can predispose them to a lot of problems,” explained Dr Chua. Also, these babies are more prone to developing necrotising enterocolitis.

“With the availability of the pasteurised donor milk, we will be able to optimise the nutritional intake of this fragile group of infants in the early days of their life, as well as to offer them a better chance of good long-term health outcomes,” she shared.

Safety always: Donor milk subjected to comprehensive screening

Prior to donating excess breast milk, donor mothers will be subjected to thorough screening and tests. The milk will be tested for bacterial contamination, then pasteurised at 62.5 degrees Celcius for 30 minutes.

Following this, it will be stored in freezers until distribution. The entire process could take up to four days. The bank will draw up individual donor records to keep the process transparent and traceable at all times.

KKH will kickstart the programme for the first year as it admits two-thirds of preterm births in Singapore. The project will roll out in Singapore General Hospital and National University Hospital over the subsequent couple of years.

Halimah Yacob, presidential candidate and former Speaker of Parliament launched the milk bank on 17 August, complimenting KKH for the effort in aiding premature and sick babies.

Dr Chua Mei Chien explaining the milk bank processes to guest of honour, Halimah Yacob. Photo credit: KKH/ Straits Times
Dr Chua Mei Chien explaining the milk bank processes to guest of honour, Halimah Yacob. Photo credit: KKH/ Straits Times

“As a mother of five and one who breastfed all my babies, I understand the nutritional importance of breast milk for children,” she expressed.

Temasek Foundation Cares treasurer Mohamed Salleh Marican, was also present at the launch. He shared that the board unanimously approved the plan. “All of us felt strongly that this is important,” he asserted.

In terms of religious backing, the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore has said it is acceptable for premature Muslim babies to drink donor milk to preserve the child's well-being. MIMS

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