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Milk donors, wet nurses and diseases: is it safe?

I received a comment on my post about wet nurses, from someone who wanted to know if I’d asked Porcelain’s wet nurses and pumpers to abstain from intercourse with their husbands. Um, no. As awkward as it can be to ask for breast milk, asking for breastmilk AND for celibacy within their marriages — that’s too gauche even for ME. And I’m the same mom who once made a really dirty joke at the dentist’s office when the hygienist asked me to open my mouth wider! 

That comment got me to thinking that I asked nothing of Porcelain’s nursers other than their milk, and was that dangerous at all? I felt a moment of panic — and then another moment of, Psht, it’s all inside her now anyway. I asked My Chemical Romance what he thought about the idea of Porcelain possibly contracting diseases from donor breastmilk, and his response was Meh.

I decided to do some research. According to the CDC,

What can happen if someone else’s breast milk is given to another child?

HIV and other serious infectious diseases can be transmitted through breast milk. However, the risk of infection from a single bottle of breast milk, even if the mother is HIV positive, is extremely small. For women who do not have HIV or other serious infectious diseases, there is little risk to the child who receives her breast milk.

Doing some further research on the CDC website:

Breastfeeding is NOT advisable if one or more of the following conditions is true:

The infant whose mother:

  • Has been infected with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)

  • Is taking antiretroviral medications

  • Has untreated, active tuberculosis

  • Is infected with human T-cell lymphotropic virus type I or type II

  • Is using or is dependent upon an illicit drug

  • Is taking prescribed cancer chemotherapy agents, such as antimetabolites that interfere with DNA replication and cell division

  • Is undergoing radiation therapies; however, such nuclear medicine therapies require only a temporary interruption in breastfeeding

I did not ask about these conditions/medications. Nobody mentioned being at risk.

Another article finds that HPV can be found in breastmilk. Also, traces of West Nile virus — although a West Nile expert said he wasn’t sure that it could be passed through breastmilk. Breastfeeding with cytomegalovirus (sp?) is safe because although it can be passed, breastmilk actually protects against it (how cool is THAT?!?!?)

So, all in all: the risks are HIV and active tuberculosis.

This is probably one of the reasons that people will buy milk from a milk bank rather than receive it from random pumpers, because there IS a risk. However, given my situation and the amount of milk Porcelain received, I think any risk is very small.

And also, who says formula is risk free? I don’t have time right now to link to sites about formula risks, but I will leave you with one word: BEETLES.

Okay, and one link to information about it.


7 Responses

  1. Thank you for writing this so I don’t have to!! lol… I think we misunderstand breastmilk in general, and thus fear it as a bodily fluid. Breastmilk that carries pathogens often attacks the pathogens within itself, much like you mentioned with cytamegalovirus. Breastmilk that has been pasteurized loses some (not all) of its immunological properties and thus you lose some, you gain some, when you get breastmilk from a bank.

    Any woman with known HIV who would donate milk is pretty much a psychopath so I think in general you’re okay!! Women here in Canada undergo HIV and STD testing while pregnant, I’m sure it’s the same in the U.S. The risk of contracting an STD after that test is present, but low, as you can imagine. Not everyone’s husband or partner is faithful, but the vast majority are. =)

    Also, women with HIV who exclusively breastfeed (NO complimentary foods or formula) have very low rates of transmission (Breastfeeding Answer Book, LLL). Something about other foods changes the intestines to allow the virus to enter the body.

    I will link this post for my women’s advocacy website for birth and breastfeeding info http://www.mothersofchange.com and also my site. TY! Oh, and also FB. You’re the bomb.

    • Thank you! And thanks to the reader who asked about it, because honestly I wasn’t certain about any of the answers until I did some research.

      I totally agree that we act like it’s a bodily fluid but it’s not. (Even the CDC says universal precautions are unnecessary with breastmilk.) I’m interested to know from my friends who send pumped breastmilk to a day-care, how the milk is treated/how the mom is treated? My friends who nurse and work both use in-home daycares where the moms are totally cool with pumped milk.

      • My aunt ran a daycare centre and is a bona fide hippie; she told me that daycare centres here in Canada don’t see much pumped breastmilk, likely because women in Canada have one year maternity leave, and either wean when they return to work, or breastfeed during non work hours. But the rules here are that universal precautions are not necessary and that daycare centres are required to accept breastmilk with no protest. I’ve not heard of anyone having a problem with this, but also not heard of many pumping moms who send Bmilk to daycare with their kid. I sent Bmilk to daycare, but it was a home based one with a nursing momma for the daycare provider, like you mentioned.

        I’m not sure if you checked out the mothers of change link yet, but I hadn’t gotten around to linking til now! DONE!

  2. You may also like the Eats On Feets Resource for Informed Breastmilk Sharing:

    Since moms with HIV are advised to not breastfeed in the US, the risk of transmission is indeed extremely low. HIV can be mitigated with flash heating the milk on the stove top though there are risks with heating milk too, like profligation of spore forming bacteria. It is interesting to note that the CDC also writes: “Chemicals present in breast milk act, together with time and cold temperatures, to destroy the HIV present in expressed breast milk.” I find this so fascinating but alas, the CDC has yet to answer my request for the research they have to state this.

    There are a few other considerations though:
    Unless a donor is tested every 4-6 months, an infection could have occurred that she is unaware of. She could have gotten infected herself or via her partner. Most likely these would be change of lifestyle related. You don’t just get Hepatitis or HIV out of the blue. So then having a relationship with your donor and her family is important.

    And one has to look at the risk of formula indeed. Formula is not sterile and the WHO has clear recommendations as to how to prepare formula. They also recommend that a child under 2 months not receive powdered formula because of risk of infection.

    But yeah, in case of a healthy baby, when a mom goes through all the effort of expressing and storing, is healthy, has had the basic blood tests done during her pregnancy, her nor her partner’s lifestyle has changed since, and the milk was handled properly, the risk of donor milk is very low, there is more risk with feeding formula in my mind.

    • I mean, think about it. Any mother who donates milk is already breastfeeding her own child. She loves her child enough that she wouldn’t be doing that if she knew of any risk factors! Like others have said, we all get tested for most of these diseases in pregnancy.

      I think it’s safe to assume that mothers will take the precautions for their child that you would like them to take for your child. It does help to know them personally, for sure — make sure they are someone you’d trust to bake you a casserole or hold your child. But demanding blood tests and stuff strikes me as a little much.

      • I think that’s why so many women don’t donate to milk banks — it’s such a pain to follow all the requirements and get all the testing. Mary F. Poppins, who nursed Cousin It regularly til she was 11mo, was turned down by a milk bank because she had traveled abroad.

  3. […] >Cinco De Mommy wrote an excellent post on the safety of milksharing, exploring the relationship of disease and informal breastmilk donation between families.  Enjoy! […]

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