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Quebec proposes milk bank to combat health problems in premature babies

Audrey Inouye, with her two sons Kiyoshi McMillan (left) and Kaito McMillian, drop off her milk to hospital volunteer Sylvia Hendel at the first human milk depot at the Grey Nuns Community Hospital in Edmonton, Thurs., Oct. 11, 2012. The facility will allow preapproved donors, who meet the guidelines set by the Human Milk Bank Association of North America, to donate breast milk to be sent to Calgary's Donor Human Milk Bank for testing and pasteurization.

JASON FRANSON/The Canadian Press

The Quebec government is proposing to create a mothers' milk bank that would be run by Héma-Quebec, which oversees the province's blood supply.

The provincewide human milk bank, the first of its kind in Canada, would mean fewer deaths of premature babies and a considerable reduction in infections, allergies and other ailments.

"A mother's milk bank is a service that will ensure the collection, screening, pasteurization and distribution of human breast milk mainly for premature babies who are hospitalized and receive little or no milk from their mothers," said Health and Social Services Minister Réjean Hébert.

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Mr. Hébert said the nutritional benefits of donor breast milk could save the lives of three to 10 premature babies a year, and would prevent health problems in others. A thousand premature babies (before 33 weeks of pregnancy) are born in Quebec annually.

The money saved on health-care expenses for premature babies would largely cover the $900,000 yearly cost of the program, the minister added.

Legislation tabled on Wednesday proposes to give Héma-Quebec the authority to recruit 260 mothers from various hospitals to supply the annual demand for breast milk.

"Donors will be given instructions after giving birth. A mother will collect her breast milk at home out of the extra milk she produces in a day. She will be asked to freeze the milk and Héma-Québec will collect it at her home," said the president of Héma-Québec, Jean De Serres. "The babies are very small. You don't need a big volume."

Héma-Québec was created following the tainted blood scandal of the 1990s. While other provinces agreed to replace the Red Cross with a blood supply managed by Canadian Blood Services, Quebec created its own provider.

According to Mr. Hébert, the plan to create a milk bank has been part of health-care policy since 2008. He added it was only natural to hand over responsibility of the milk bank to Héma-Quebec, which has the equipment and expertise to collect, screen and pasteurize human breast milk.

There are currently two independent human milk banks in the country, in Calgary and Vancouver, with a third planned for Toronto.

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According to Kathleen Couillard, a microbiologist and spokesperson for the Quebec wing of La Leche League, an international mother-to-mother support group that promotes breastfeeding, the milk bank would be a major victory for mothers of premature babies.

"This will take a huge weight off their shoulders. Often mothers who were desperate to care for their fragile babies couldn't produce the breast milk needed to bring their baby back to health," Ms. Couillard said. "It is simple common sense. This should have been done a long time ago."

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About the Author
Quebec City political correspondent

Rhéal Séguin is a journalist and political scientist. Born and educated in southern Ontario, he completed his undergraduate degree in political science at York University and a master's degree in political science at the Université du Québec à Montréal.Rhéal has practised journalism since 1978, first with Radio-Canada in radio and television and then with CBC Radio. More

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