Report Warns of Serious Health Risks of Online Breast Milk

Frozen Breast Milk in Freezer“Breast is best,” argues the well-known breastfeeding adage. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of life followed by breastfeeding with the introduction of complementary foods until age 1 and then continued breastfeeding until age 2 or beyond as mutually desired by mother and baby. However, some mothers cannot breastfeed for myriad reasons. When breastfeeding becomes difficult or impossible, some women purchase human breast milk online, believing that breast milk in any form is better than infant formula.

Because of the growing practice of purchasing breast milk online, health experts warn of the dangers of consuming human breast milk bought online including the risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases in a new editorial published in the British Medical Journal.

Report author Sarah Steele of the Global Health, Policy and Innovation Unit at Queen Mary University of London in the United Kingdom and colleagues say the strong focus on breastfeeding can push some women to search online for alternatives:

“Online these women find emotive, moralising discourse around breast feeding and often fear inducing warnings that formula is inferior to human milk for infant feeding.

“They may also find sites that facilitate the buying, selling, and trading of breast milk, as well as high profile media sites featuring celebrities who are engaged in this trade. In the absence of warnings about the dangers of buying milk online, this option might seem healthy and beneficial—the better choice if one can’t breast feed oneself.”

But many mothers and health care professionals fail to realize that the online breast milk market is dangerous, putting infant health at risk. Unlike breast milk banks, the online market for breast milk is unregulated, meaning that the milk is not pasteurized, is not tested for contamination and disease, and may be stored incorrectly.

Explains the authors in the report:

“Unlike donors at licensed milk banks online sellers are not required to undergo any serological screening, meaning that diseases such as hepatitis B and C, HIV, human T cell lymphotropic virus, and syphilis may not be detected. One study comparing milk bought online with that from licensed milk banks found that 21% of the samples bought online were positive for cytomegalovirus, compared with only 5% of bank samples.”


“One study of 102 samples purchased online found that 25% of samples arrived with severely damaged packaging and were no longer frozen, leading to more rapid bacterial growth and contamination. Other studies identified occasional contamination with bisphenol A and illicit drugs and tampering including the addition of cow’s milk or water to increase volume (as milk is sold online per ounce).”

In light of the growing online breast milk market, the authors argue that health care professionals can encourage mothers to make “smarter and safer” infant feeding choices in a number of ways, recommending training to increase the awareness of the online breast milk market for all health care workers.

Note the authors:

“In paediatrics, general practice, and community care, post-birth check-ups offer an excellent opportunity to inquire about feeding difficulties and practices. New mothers experiencing difficulties breast feeding, and those who cannot breast feed, can learn of options that are much safer than the online market in breast milk. Healthcare professionals should also provide advice on the best storage and use of expressed milk.”

The authors additionally recommend the need for legal regulation to ensure the safe collection, processing, shipping, and quality of human milk.

Says Public Health England expert Professor Nick Phin in a statement:

“Breast milk is able to transmit viruses, including some hepatitis viruses, but only if the donor of the breast milk is a carrier of the virus. This is why donors providing breast milk for babies in hospital are screened for viruses prior to  their milk being used. Furthermore, mothers with some viruses, including HIV, are advised not to breastfeed their baby. The transmission risk varies depending on the virus. It is therefore important that any breast milk product can be traced back to the source and that donors of the breast milk are adequately screened.”

The report concludes:

“Although breast milk holds many known benefits, seeking out another’s milk rather than turning to instant formula poses risks. When breast milk is screened and treated appropriately, as the World Health Organization states, it remains second to a mother’s own milk as best for infant feeding.10 At present milk bought online is a far from ideal alternative, exposing infants and other consumers to microbiological and chemical agents. Urgent action is required to make this market safer.”

Another recent study concluded that prolonged breastfeeding during childhood is linked to higher intelligence, longer schooling and greater earnings among adults.


Hidden dangers of the online breast milk market:
Report warns of ‘serious health risks’ associated with online breast milk:
Risks of the unregulated market in human breast milk:

Image Credits

Frozen Breast Milk in Freezer © 2014 Heather Johnson

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