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A Smartphone Gadget Pumps Up Breast Milk Banks

Newborn in incubator Soweto tour, Durban, Greytown Hospital, Sep 24-28, 2009
Wendy Stone Courtesy of PATH
Newborn in incubator Soweto tour, Durban, Greytown Hospital, Sep 24-28, 2009

Breast milk banks are a great way to help babies whose mothers aren't able to breast-feed. Breast milk, in case you didn't know, does a better job than formula at bolstering a baby's immune's system, especially if the tot is premature or underweight.

Banks are easy to run in some parts of the world. In the U.S., donors place the breast milk in an ice-filled cooler and ship it to a central bank. The milk is pasteurized to kill germs, then mailed to donors on a refrigerated FedEx or UPS truck. The 16 American banks distribute three million ounces of breast milk a year across the country.

The developing world is another story. In South Africa, for instance, most milk banks are in cities like Cape Town, but transporting a bottle to a rural clinic can be troublesome. Roads wash out in the rainy season. And the clinics don't have the resources to pay for a refrigerated truck.


And that's the part of the world where breast milk banks are especially crucial. Each year, 800,000 children under the age of five die because they didn't have access to breast milk — close to one out of every eight infant deaths, most of which occur in developing regions.

One solution would be to set up banks in remote places. "We'd love more milk banks at rural hospitals where they can gather milk from their own patients and mothers," says Louise Goosen who directs the Milk Matters, a banking organization in Cape Town.

But a commercial device to pasteurize breast milk can cost from $10,000 to $45,000 — out of reach for rural clinics.

Now there's a simple device called FoneAstra that, when combined with a smart phone, can pasteurize milk so a bank can be set up almost anywhere. The cost is only about $1,000.

The FoneAstra dock comes equipped with a wire connected to a temperature probe, which gets placed in a hot water bath. After a nurse collects a milk donation, she puts the bottle into the water bath. When she starts the phone app, FoneAstra will display step-by-step instructions on how to pasteurize breast milk.


It's trickier than you think. Boil too hot and the heat will destroy important proteins. Too cold and life-threatening germs might remain.

The smartphone app also prints barcode labels for each donation, so nurses can trace every donation in case something goes wrong.

Since 2011, PATH has tested FoneAstra at two clinics in Durban, South Africa. The device tripled the volume of milk that could be collected from donors.

That's a significant result. The consequence of lacking breast milk are more severe in developing countries due to poor sanitation and a higher abundance of infectious diseases. One study found that non-breastfed infants had a tenfold higher risk of dying compared to predominantly breastfed infants in Ghana, India, and Peru.

And the number of babies at risk can be high. South Africa notches over one millionpremature births per year. "What we noticed in neonate wards in South Africa is about 25 percent of babies don't have access to their own mother's milk," says Kiersten Israel-Ballard of the maternal and child health unit at PATH.

Next year in collaboration with the Human Milk Banking Association of South Africa (HMBASA), PATH will spread FoneAstra further away from Durban across five more sites, as part of a three-year initiative sponsored by the province's health department to promote breastfeeding.

Unlike a commercial pasteurizer, FoneAstra only works with small volumes, about 25 ounces at time, enough for the daily needs of most babies.

"One of the huge advantages of the FoneAstra is that a cycle can be completed in 17 minutes as opposed to the 2-hour cycle of a commercial pasteurizer," says Penny Reimers of HMBASA. "But general promotion of breastfeeding must happen too, or we won't have enough donor milk for these banks to operate."

FoneAstra can aid that too. "Moving banks into rural communities can make people aware that breast milk donation is an option, says Noah Perin, a health innovations officer at PATH.

Louise Goosen of Milk Matters recalls one rural hospital near Cape Town that started a milk bank with FoneAstra. "Rather to our surprise, their milk bank grew, and they eventually bought a commercial pasteurizer to match the supply," says Goosen. "Certainly, without FoneAstra, they wouldn't have started the program in the first place."

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