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Breast milk donors in Uganda give mothers hope

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Caroline Ikendi (th) needed donated breast milk to be able to feed her two premature twin babies. Photo: Hajarah Nalwadda / AP / NTB

Of NTB | 03.06.2024 05:33:02

Medicine and health: Early last year, Caroline Ikendi was distraught after undergoing an emergency C-section to remove a dead fetus and save two others. Doctors said one of the premature babies had only a 2 percent chance of survival.

If the babies didn’t get breast milk – which she didn’t – she could lose them too.

Thus began a desperate hunt for breast milk donors. She was lucky with a neighbor, a woman who had a newborn baby to feed, and who was willing to donate a few milliliters at a time.

– You go begging for milk. You say “please help me, help my child,” Ikendi told the AP news agency.

The neighbor contributed until Ikendi heard about a Ugandan group that collects breast milk and donates it to mothers like her. Soon the ATTA Breastmilk Community provided her with the breastmilk she needed, free of charge, until her children were strong enough to be discharged from the hospital.

ATTA receives inquiries from hospitals and homes with children who were born prematurely or are too sick to be breastfed.

More than 200 mothers have donated breast milk to over 450 infants since July 2021, and over 600 liters of milk have been delivered to infants during this period, according to the organization’s figures.

As part of building a trusted community, many donors have given multiple times, while others help find new ones, says ATTA administrator Racheal Akugizibwe.

– We are an emergency solution. While the mother works on her own production, we give her milk. But we do it under guidance and with the support of a breastfeeding expert and medical staff, she says, adding:

– All mothers who have given us milk are in some way connected to us. They are us, we are them. That’s what makes it a community.

ATTA is calling for donors via social media such as Instagram. Women who wish to donate must be tested for, among other things, HIV and hepatitis B and C. Formal interviews are also conducted where the group gathers information about potential donors and their motivation. Those who pass the checks are given storage bags and instructions on safe handling.

– She asked health workers: “Where should I use the milk I have now?” They said: “All we can do for you now is give you tablets to dry it out”, says Akugizibwe, and says that the thought that others might need the milk then came to mind.

In the beginning, ATTA connected donors with recipients, but this proved unsustainable due to the pressure it placed on the donors. The group then began collecting and storing breast milk themselves, and donors and recipients no longer know each other.

Akugizibwe says they receive more requests for support than they can accommodate. The challenges include obtaining storage bags in large quantities, as well as the costs of testing. Donors must also have their own freezers, which can be a financial obstacle for some.

– The demand is extremely, extremely high, but the supply is low, says Akugizibwe.

– Being a donor is a time-consuming responsibility, but it is the right thing to do, she says.

Via motorcycle couriers in Kampala’s busy streets, breast milk from donors is transported to ATTA’s warehouse and then delivered to parents who need it.

ATTA’s aim is to establish a full-fledged breast milk bank with the possibility of pasteurisation. The service is necessary in a country where women do not receive sufficient support in breastfeeding, says Doctor Doreen Mazakpwe, a specialist in breastfeeding who works with ATTA.

She highlights a number of problems mothers can face in connection with breastfeeding, ranging from sore nipples to babies born too sick or too weak to suckle and stimulate milk production.

Mazakpwe says she advises mothers on how to stimulate their own production within a month of donating breast milk. She says that sometimes all that is needed is to hold the child in the right way. When the mothers start producing milk, it frees up supplies for new ones who need ATTA’s help.

In addition, there is a lot of negativity associated with not breastfeeding, says Ikendi. Her children have survived on donated milk.

– Society looks at you as if you simply refused to breastfeed.

She says she struggled even though she knew she had no choice after seeing her children in the intensive care unit for the first time. Through the glass she saw that they were tiny, receiving oxygen treatment and bleeding from the nose. The babies, a boy and a girl, had been taken out of the womb when they were seven months old.

Ikendi’s child received donated breast milk for two months. She tells AP, with her children in her arms, how important the donated milk was for their growth.

ATTA Breastmilk Community was launched in 2021 in Uganda’s capital Kampala by a woman who herself had struggled like Ikendi, without having received support. The non-profit organization, which is supported by grants from organizations and individuals, is the only group outside of hospitals in Uganda that stores breast milk in significant quantities.

Tracy Ahumuza founded the group in her own home in 2021, while she was in the midst of personal grief. She had failed to produce breast milk for her newborn child, who was struggling with life-threatening complications. A few days later, after the baby died, she started producing milk.

Lelah Wamala, a chef and mother of three in Kampala who has donated milk twice, says she was motivated to do something when, during a birth in 2022, she saw mothers whose premature babies were dying because they were not getting milk.

Akugizibwe believes their work is challenging in a socially conservative society, where such a pioneering service is attracting attention. Even among the recipients, many fear that babies who drink donated breast milk may inherit the bad habits of the donors.

(© NTB)

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