According to World Bank data, the mortality rate of Indian kids five years or younger is 48 per 1,000, which happens to be the highest in the world. According to Indian government data, around 42.5 percent children below five years of age are malnourished while 69.5 percent are battling anaemia. Globally, four out of every 10 premature children are Indian; around 15 lakh five-year-old or younger children die every year in India.
These are disturbing figures. They show that India still has a long way to go before it reaches the minimum development goals set by the UN to bring down child mortality rate.
One of the major reasons for malnutrition and infection among children is lack of mother’s milk in their diet. Infants might be deprived of mother’s milk either because of the mother’s medical condition or in case they are orphans. Mother’s milk is considered a life-saver for malnourished infants. It boosts immunity to fight infections and diseases.
Breast feeding has long time health benefits that prevail well into adulthood and old age. Unfortunately, 60 percent of 1.35 million children born across the world are not breast fed, as per data provided by the Breastfeeding Promotion Network of India. According to the National Family Health Survey 2005-06, only 23 percent of women in India were able to feed their babies within the first hour of birth. The first hour, also called the golden hour, is the most crucial for the newborn. If a child gets mother’s milk within the first hour, its chances of survival increase by at least six-fold.
Realising the importance of mother’s milk with regard to infant mortality, various initiatives have been started over the years in the country to provide children with mother’s milk. One of the most recent of such initiatives is the Divya Mother’s Milk Bank (DMMB), which was established in 2013 at the Panna Dhai Maternity Hospital in RNT Medical College, Udaipur. The initiative for the milk bank was taken by Devendra Agrawal, a yoga guru who runs an orphanage in Rajasthan. Agrawal realised that the health of children in his orphanage was declining despite the fact that they were being fed with formula milk. He soon understood that formula milk was an inadequate substitute for mother’s milk and therefore, approached the state government with a proposal for a milk bank.
“During the past two years, 2,911 women have donated 20,807 units (624 litres) of milk to our bank,” says Agrawal. It has benefitted 1,661 infants and 1,793 mothers. Our bank gives preference to kids battling for survival in ICUs and the rest of the milk is given to infants in the ashram.”
After the experience with dmmb, the Rajasthan government has partnered with Norway to establish another milk bank in March this year — Jeevan Dhara at Jaipur’s jk Lone Hospital. Shedding light on mother’s milk banking, Mamta Mahavat, counselor at Jeevan Dhara says, “Mother’s milk for a newborn is no less than an elixir. If a child misses out on breast milk, the effects are life-long. It puts the child at risk of developing serious diseases. Also, women who do not breast-feed their children are at a higher risk of breast cancer.”
She adds that formula milk, which is widely being used as a substitute for breast milk, has now been scientifically proved harmful for infants. “This means the only choice is breast milk. Children who are orphans or those whose mothers cannot feed them due to medical conditions, can be provided breast milk from such human milk banks where mothers admitted to the facility donate excess milk after feeding their own baby. Many other women not admitted here also come and offer to donate milk to the bank.”
currently, there are 20 milk banks in various states of India, most of which have come up only recently. Several state governments are thinking of opening more of such facilities in future. The Rajasthan government has announced that it will be opening milk banks in 10 other districts of the state. Other states have also taken the cue from Rajasthan. Recently, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa inaugurated mother’s milk banks in seven district hospitals of the state.
However, some believe that huhuman milk banks may not be as much of a breakthrough as they are made out to be. Dr Arun Gupta, Union coordinator of the Breastfeeding Promotion Network of India, does not see milk banks as a major step in the fight against infant mortality and malnutrition. “It is only an exercise to invest funds allotted under the health budget. Why don’t they pay attention to other things also?” asks Gupta adding that there are a lot of misunderstandings regarding breastfeeding in the country. “Milk banks may benefit premature or weak infants, but they cannot be a replacement for breast feeding. There are living cells in mother’s milk that die once the milk comes out of the body. Moreover, there is the question of hygiene too since the infants are fed through spoons. There is need to come up with a comprehensive plan to promote breastfeeding and keep human milk banking only as a supplementary strategy. Brazil, which has the highest number of milk banks in the world, has a similar strategy where mailmen are provided training to guide pregnant women on breastfeeding. As a result, infant mortality rate in Brazil has recorded a drop of 73 percent.”