Brazil’s milk banks

The success story of a simple - yet effective - solution to reduce infant mortality

Photo by: TRTWorld
Photo by: TRTWorld

Brazil has been criticised for “taking too long” to contain the Zika virus outbreak.

Across the world, images of babies with abnormally small heads - allegedly a result of pregnant women contracting the virus - are spreading fears this could soon become a global disaster.

But Brazil has a few things to teach the world when it comes to healthcare. And human milk banks are one of them.

Milk banks work in much the same way as blood banks: milk is donated, tested, sorted and pasteurised. It’s then given to infants whose mothers are unable to breastfeed.

A nationwide campaign was launched in Brazil in 1985 and since then the infant mortality rate in the country has dropped by more than two-thirds.

Valentina is one of 300,000 newborns benefitting from Brazil's "milk bank" initiative every year. [TRTWorld]

Every year more than one million babies die on the day they’re born. The problem can partly be solved if infants are better nourished.

Breast milk contains anti-microbial and anti-inflammatory substances that help prevent illnesses and promote long-term health. 

With more than 150,000 donors, 155,000 recipients and 200 centers, Brazil has created the largest network of breast milk donors in the world. 

Fotographer Debora Kemplous filming Yoschihara Barbosa and her baby Valentina [TRTWorld]

Danielle Aparecida da Silva, the coordinator at the milk bank we visited, explained the idea of storing mother’s milk and using it to help other children in need was revolutionary at the time the banks were first conceived in the 1940’s… but that it took the Brazilian government 40 years to follow up by creating legislation that made the centers part of public policy. It was then, in the 1980s, that the initiative started grow and expand.

Other countries like Venezuela, Equador and Argentina implemented the program shortly after. And also obtained great results.

"We continue ‘exporting’ to countries in Africa, for example. We teach them the technique and they travel there to help them put centers together. Cabo Verde reduced infant mortal by half since they created milk banks there," says Danielle.

Brazil has also managed to keep costs down by replacing high-end pasteurising machines with cheaper Brazilian-made equipment.

And empty mayonnaise or instant coffee jars replaced imported beaker tubes to store and test the milk.

Doctor Lisa Hammer is part a team sent in by the US to study the program.

"The Brazilian model of milk banks really is a leader in the world. They've been doing this work for decades, and have done tremendous work changing the culture and raising awareness about the importance of breastfeeding and human milk, and the United States is starting on that process, but Brazil really is a leader and we're here to learn from them," she said.

Author: Anelise Borges