MOORE — Some of the state’s newest and most vulnerable residents are getting a jump start, thanks to the recently opened Oklahoma Mothers’ Milk Bank in Oklahoma City.
Only the 12th bank in the nation, the human milk bank collects, pasteurizes and distributes breast milk to preterm and critically ill infants in Oklahoma and surrounding states to improve short- and long-term health care outcomes.
A total of 13.5 percent (more than 1 in 8) of babies born in Oklahoma in 2007 were preterm, compared to the national average of 12.7 percent, according to the Oklahoma State Department of Health’s Oklahoma Pregnancy Risk Assessment Monitoring System. “Preterm” is a birth occurring prior to 37 weeks of gestation.
Preterm infants face an increased risk of life-long health complications, Bank Director Keri Hale said, and giving these babies human milk as opposed to conventional nutritional substitutes like formula can be a medical game-changer.
“Studies really show that using mom’s milk or pasteurized human donor milk lowers the chances of babies’ developing infections to such a minute amount — that can be life-saving for our infants,” Hale said.
There are several reasons a new mother might not be able to provide milk for a premature or ill infant, including an insufficient supply, illness or use of certain prescription medications. In these events, the bank’s supplies are available by prescription, said Becky Mannel, bank board of directors vice president.
The bank, located in the new Oklahoma Blood Institute building at 901 N. Lincoln Ave. in Oklahoma City, is fully stocked with equipment to accept and process donations and closely adheres to safety guidelines set by the Human Milk Banking Association of North America (HMBANA).
Frozen donations are defrosted and then cultured, pasteurized and cultured again before being re-frozen and disseminated to physicians. During cultures, Hale said they look for excessive bacteria growth that could become pathogens. If found, these donations are discarded.
According to the HMBANA website, human milk offers all infants optimal nutrition, easy digestibility and immunologic protection against many organisms and diseases. Human milk also contains growth factors that can protect immature tissue; promote maturation, particularly in the gastrointestinal tract; and promote healing of tissue damaged by infection.
Common reasons for prescribing donor milk, according to HMBANA, include prematurity, allergies, feeding/formula intolerance, immunologic deficiencies, post-operative nutrition, infectious diseases and inborn errors of metabolism.
Mannel said there is still some controversy for physicians on whether donor milk is superior to formula for preterm babies. Since the age of viability has decreased, the appropriate growth rate — and type of growth — for preterm infants is still being researched.
“We know how they should grow in utero, but once they’ve been born early, do you fatten them up really fast? Or do you first focus on bone/brain growth and not worry about overall weight?” Mannel said. “So one of the concerns with donor milk is it’s not a high-fat product. ... A physician focused on rapid weight-gain is not going to be happy with donor milk, but if you’re looking at bone growth, brain development and immunilogical protection, there’s no question on that.”
Fortunately, each batch of processed milk at the Oklahoma bank is screened for nutritional content so prescriptions can be ordered for desired nutritional, fat and calorie content, Mannel said.
“It helps clinicians determine what milk they want to order and what fortification might be needed for a particular baby,” she said.
Hale said University of Oklahoma Children’s Hospital and INTEGRIS now use donor milk, with about five additional hospitals on board to begin soon. With such high demand, the bank’s goal is to provide 30,000 ounces of donor milk in its first year of operation.
All donors undergo an extensive screening process before dropping off frozen donations, including a preliminary questionnaire about the health of mother and baby and blood work processed by OBI. Donors must receive their physician’s approval to donate.
Hale said mothers donate out of the goodness of their hearts for a variety of reasons.
For Moore mother Jenny Potter, donating was a way to pay tribute to the short, 7-week life of a friend’s baby, Aiden Smith.
After Smith died July 16, 2012, from pertussis (whooping cough), Potter began pumping what would become a 173-ounce donation to the bank.
“It was cool because I knew as I was doing it — I knew it was too late for Aiden, there was nothing I could do for him, but there are other babies in the NICU and this could be a lifesaver for them,” Potter said.
Potter dropped off her donation Jan. 31, with her own baby, George, in tow.
Hale said the bank is in the process of establishing depots, or drop-off locations, throughout the state so mothers don’t have to drive to the bank location in Oklahoma City to deliver donations.
Those interested in donating milk, volunteering time or otherwise getting involved with the bank are encouraged to do so, Hale said.
For more information on the bank, visit okmilkbank.org or find them on Facebook.
History: The Oklahoma Mothers’ Milk Bank in Oklahoma City didn’t spring up overnight. From start to finish, the nonprofit agency is a decade in the making, said Becky Mannel, bank board of directors vice president.
Prior to the Oklahoma Mothers’ Milk Bank, the most proximal human milk bank was in north Texas. When it opened in 2003, Mannel said many mothers began donating breast milk through the University of Oklahoma Medical Center, where Mannel works as a lactation and breastfeeding health care professional.
After several years of OU facilitating donations for the North Texas bank, Mannel said the bank director suggested OU become an official depot for the Texas bank.
“I knew even at that point that at some point Oklahoma would need a milk bank, but that’s going to take a while,” Mannel said.
OU became a depot in 2007 and quickly became one of the bank’s largest depots, with Oklahoma mothers sending 20,000 ounces of milk to Texas every year. Mannel said she continued working to raise awareness with physicians about the health benefits of using donor milk over formula for premature and sick infants. By 2011, physicians began asking what they needed to do to get donor milk prescriptions sent to Oklahoma.
Shortly after, OU began ordering donor milk from north Texas to routinely provide for preterm babies. Because OU has the largest neonatal intensive care unit in the state, Mannel said the orders marked a large step forward in raising awareness about the need for an Oklahoma bank.
During that same time, Mannel said a board was formed for an Oklahoma bank and the hard work began to raise money and apply for nonprofit status.
While many banks take five years or more to get off the ground once development begins, Mannel said the Oklahoma bank was able to get organized in just two.