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Efforts under way for breast milk bank in Pittsburgh

TribLIVE (January 4, 2015) – When Teresa Vinisky gave birth to premature twins in 2002, she was in a bind common to mothers of preemies — she wanted to breastfeed because doctors told her it would help ward off specific complications, but she couldn’t produce enough milk.

The hospital could only give them formula, and eventually, the smaller twin, Riley, had to be treated for signs of a colon infection called necrotizing enterocolitis that breast milk helps prevent.

“It was stressful, seeing the formula on the counter and knowing they needed more human milk,” said Vinisky of Jenners, Somerset County.

To help Pittsburgh-area mothers deal with breast milk shortages, a group of health care professionals is trying to start a human breast milk bank. With $300,000 in grants from the Hillman Foundation and an active search under way for a building to house their efforts, Three Rivers Mothers’ Milk Bank founder Denise O’Connor said they hope to be open by mid-2015.

“The time is right, and everybody’s ready,” said O’Connor, a lactation consultant.

It’s not clear how breast milk wards off preemie diseases such as necrotizing enterocolitis, said Dr. Alan Lantzy, a West Penn Hospital neonatologist who is on the board of the milk bank, but it likely has to do with protective immunity conferred by breast milk. He said there are about 500 preemies born each year in Pittsburgh’s largest hospitals.

The youngest preemies are at highest risk, said Dr. Giovanni Laneri, a West Penn Hospital neonatologist who is not part of the milk bank. One of four preemies who gets necrotizing enterocolitis dies.

“This is pretty much a no-brainer,” Lantzy said about plans for the milk bank. “It reduces the stress we have and more importantly, the stress the baby and family has.”

A similar effort is under way on the east side of the state. Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia is building a human breast milk bank for its 100-bed neonatal intensive care unit.

Milk bank organizer and nurse Diane Spatz said the hospital had been using donor milk from Ohio for many years, even though several of its patients made more milk than they could use.

She said the hospital sent the excess milk to the Ohio bank and bought it back for its patients.

“It kind of makes sense that we would be our bank,” Spatz said.

According to the Human Milk Banking Association of North America, there are 16 HMBANA-accredited milk banks in the United States and Canada, and 10 in the works, including the two in Pennsylvania.

The next battle, O’Connor said, is persuading insurance companies to cover the cost. Women who want to donate breast milk have to be screened for infectious diseases, among other things. The donated milk has to be tested and pasteurized. Then there is the cost of transport, which could be about $4.50 per ounce, she said.

O’Connor said the cost per ounce dwarves the cost of a preemie getting an infection, which could cost tens of thousands of dollars to treat and more if the child requires surgery.

For Teresa Vinisky, who has two healthy seventh-graders at North Star Middle School, milk banking would have helped her in more than one way. Riley and Colby would have benefited from another woman’s donation at first, and then, as her milk production increased, she had a freezer full of milk that she could have donated that she eventually threw away.

“This is a really big deal. It’s going to make such a big difference,” she said.

Read the full story here.