02 August 2012

Saving lives with blood and breast milk

Three major healthcare organisations have joined hands to kick off a national campaign aimed at significantly reducing maternal and child mortality rates in SA.


Three major healthcare organisations have joined hands to kick off a national campaign aimed at achieving government’s goal of significantly reducing maternal and child mortality rates in South Africa.

According to Sharlene Swart, National Operations Manager of Netcare Stork’s Nest, open days are being held throughout August at Netcare maternity hospitals around the country in conjunction with the South African Breastmilk Reserve (SABR) and the South African National Blood Service (SANBS) to raise awareness about the role of blood and breast milk in saving the lives of mothers and babies. This is being done in commemoration of National Women’s Month and National Breastfeeding Month.

A high number of maternal deaths continue to plague South Africa with the most recent Saving Mothers Report from the Department of Health indicating that more maternal deaths were reported between 2008 and 2010 than in any of the previous years. Obstetric haemorrhage remains the most common avoidable cause and one of the top five underlying causes of maternal death in the country.

Most blood stock goes to women in labour

Vanessa Raju, Brand and Communications Manager of SANBS, says the biggest percentage of blood stock – 27% in total – goes to women experiencing obstetric complications. “Many people think of donated blood as being used mostly for accident victims or those undergoing surgery, forgetting that women who suffer complications during labour require blood too.”

“Blood donation is one of the most valuable ways to give back to the community,” Raju continues. “By donating blood you may be saving the life of a mother and possibly even the life of her baby as well. We therefore urge South Africans to visit their nearest blood donation site regularly – a minimum of four times a year. The more donations we receive the more lives we can save.”

Swart points out that infants whose mothers die in childbirth do not have access to their mothers’ breast milk, and many of these babies suffer and can even die because of it. “While various methods of infant feeding are available that may be safe under certain circumstances, in a developing country the inability to access breast milk is often associated with a number of conditions that can result in child mortality.”

Breastfeeding is a far safer option, particularly in underprivileged communities where access to clean water and a hygienic environment is limited. By being breastfed, an infant is far less likely to contract illnesses such as diarrhoea from contaminated water and bottles used for formula.

The benefits of breast milk

“Breast milk is one of the most nutritious substances and is the ideal food for infants,” says Swart. “Not only does it contain nutrients that are important for a baby’s physical and mental development, it also contains antibodies that help to protect against common childhood illnesses such as diarrhoea and pneumonia – the two leading causes of infant mortality worldwide.”

While the illness and death of mothers remains a dire situation for the country, there is hope for babies who are left without access to their mother’s own breast milk. Stasha Jordan, Managing Director of SABR, asserts that breast milk donation is increasingly being accepted and practiced by mothers as a community initiative.

“Approximately 1 000 babies per year are fed from the milk donated by a growing donor base of roughly 350 breast milk donors. While this concept is fairly new, it is taking hold quite quickly and we are experiencing a highly positive response from mothers in South Africa. Netcare is a key supporter in the funding and distribution of breast milk, with two out of every three donated bottles at Netcare hospitals going to babies in the public healthcare sector.”

Meanwhile, the construction of between eight and 12 human breast milk banks will take place in the public sector before the end of the year, demonstrating the positive growth of breast milk donation in the country. Thanks to this, babies who have lost their mothers now have more of a fighting chance at life.

Donor breast milk needed

Swart explains that mothers who give birth to premature babies in private facilities are encouraged and supported so that they are able to express breast milk for their babies in neo-natal intensive care. “However, premature infants require fairly small quantities of breast milk and upon their release the hospital freezers are generally overloaded with leftover breast milk.”

“In order to ensure the safe, efficient and effective use of donor breast milk as well as fair and equitable access for all infants in the private and public sectors, strict guidelines from the SABR Medical Advisory Board are applied in the use of donor breast milk in neonatal intensive care units.”

As stated in the Tshwane Declaration, South Africa is one of only 12 countries in the world where infant mortality has been on the rise. According to Thandi Chaane, Chief Director for Health Programmes at the Gauteng Department of Health, the donation of blood and the encouragement of breastfeeding will go a long way in changing the status quo.

“One of the first steps to decreasing maternal and child mortality rates is to increase the amount of blood that is donated so that the lives of more mothers can be saved. It is also vital that women are informed about the importance of breastfeeding, and that we all implement the exclusive breastfeeding strategy of the Tshwane Declaration,” she says.

How long to breastfeed

Many women are not aware that it is advisable to breastfeed one’s baby exclusively for six months and to only add other food and liquid thereafter. This is particularly the case for HIV positive mothers, as research shows that exclusive breastfeeding reduces the chances of HIV infection in the child. These chances are increased if mixed feeding is practiced. According to the Tshwane Declaration, both mother and child should undergo antiretroviral therapy throughout the breastfeeding period.

“As an organisation dedicated to improving the health of our nation wherever possible, we at Netcare feel it is our responsibility to assist in informing the public about what can be done to help save the lives of mothers and children,” concludes Swart.

“We therefore warmly encourage those who wish to find out more about blood donation, breastfeeding and the South African Breastmilk Reserve to contact their nearest Netcare hospital to enquire about the dates and times of open days, where practical giveaways will also be available for new mothers and moms-to-be.”

(Press release, August 2012)

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