15,April, 2016

Union health ministry forms committee of doctors and NGOs to set up guidelines to curb misuse of breast milk

The quest for smooth and pearl-perfect skin is known to drive many an ageing flock to specialised beauty counsellors. And, to this end, human milk has been botox for the wealthy in the West. The trend has quietly but steadily caught on in India as well, with beauticians using it for an exclusive clientele as an elixir of youth. In fact, the misuse of breast milk — reportedly syphoned out of milk banks — has become so widespread that the Union health ministry has formed a committee comprising heads of select milk banks from across the country and a couple of NGOs to draft guidelines for a legislation to curb the unethical practice.

Donors, mostly from the economically backward section, are also easy prey for the high profile set who use it for beauty enhancement.

"We want all neonates and babies to be healthy and mother’s milk is an essential commodity. Malpractices have to be curbed and more voluntary donors urged to donate to the milk banks. Correct guidelines must be put in place to achieve this," said Dr Ajay Khera, deputy commissioner, Child Health, Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare.

"The medical fraternity as well as the government are aware of this aberration. People are taking away nutrition from kids for vanity," said Dr Shailaja Mane, head of the milk bank at D Y Patil Medical College and Hospital, and one of the committee members. "The donors are a vulnerable lot that gets easily lured by the prospect of making money. This also affects the steady flow of stock at milk banks." Unlike the West, donations to milk banks in India are voluntary. As Mane said, the system was set up for the benefit of infants and neonates.

The committee is led by a New Delhibased NGO, Path. An official from here, who did not wish to be named, said, "The primary aim of this committee is to help formulate guidelines that will prevent prevalent unethical commercialisation of mother’s milk."

Another member of the committee, Dr J P Dadhich, national coordinator, of the Delhi-based Breastfeeding Network Promotion of India (BPNI) rationalised the need for the guidelines beyond curbing misuse. He focused on the need for appropriate infrastructure, including breastfeeding counsellors, who play an important role in retaining donors. Unlike the West, India does not have such a system in place yet. "There are many infants who are deprived of the basic nutrition, which leads to many diseases, auto immune disorder being one. It is high time that appropriate guidelines are formed which can be turned into a legislation by the government," said Dadich.

A top Mumbai-based dermatologist had no qualms about admitting that she services a select clientele, using fresh or stocked breast milk as the primary ingredient. "I have used it myself and I don’t look my age," she quipped. "I have regular clients from Bollywood celebrities as well as industrialists, many of them based in Pune, Delhi and Bangalore. A single breast milk facial is equivalent to 20 treatments. The high levels of protein in human milk act as a skin lightening agent and reduce blemishes and acne immediately."

So, where does she source her formula from? Milk banks, she said, not willing to give away names, as also needy but impoverished new mothers. "Sometimes, celebrities also manage to procure it themselves, if Iever run out of stock," she added.

Other members of the committee, too, flinched at the prevalence of this trend. Said Dr Umesh Vaidya, head of neonatology and the milk bank at Sahyadri Hospital and KEM, "There needs to be strict policing and management of the supply milk to the needy. We are hoping that eventually a check-list will be drawn on how a milk bank should function." Dr Jayshree Mondkar, head of Mumbai’s first milk bank at Sion Hospital, added, "The focus is also on advocacy and awareness for milk donation as many a time, certain donors are known to have health deficiencies. This needs proper screening."

Pawan Kumar Agarwal, chief executive officer, Food Safety Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), endorsed the view, as he said, "This is a very serious issue. We need stakeholders who are experts in milk banking to look into it. This system has both ethical as well as legal angles, which can be impemented once guidelines are put in place."

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