Breast milk is the primary source of nutrition for newborns. Several new mothers face mounting social pressure to provide breast milk, given its famous nutritional benefits, and more and more are turning to the Internet, especially if they are unable to provide the milk themselves.
It is not just purchased for babies; even gym enthusiasts and cancer patients buy breast milk, believing it provides a nutritional plus for muscle-building and the immune system. Breast milk purchased online is cheaper than milk obtained from regulated breast milk banks. However, it is very prone to contamination and poses a risk of communicable diseases for the consumers.
An editorial published in the British Medical Journal
suggests that health watchdogs should regulate online sales of breast milk to avoid the contamination hazards.
Internet providers cut the cost of checking donors and also on storing and shipping the milk in hygienic conditions. The editorial said, "Unlike donors at licensed milk banks, online sellers are not required to undergo any serological screening, meaning that diseases such as hepatitis B and C, HIV, human T cell lymphotrophic virus and syphilis may not be detected."
A previous study has found that 21% of tested samples of Internet-bought breast milk were contaminated with a herpes virus called cytomegalovirus, compared to 5% from a regulated bank. Another found that 92 of 101 online samples tested positive for bacterial growth, likely due to a lack of pasteurization, and poor shipping and storage conditions. Another investigation into 102 online samples found that 25% arrived with severely damaged packaging and were no longer frozen, leading to more rapid bacterial growth and contamination.
The specialists said, "Other studies identified occasional contamination with bisphenol A and illicit drugs and tampering, including the addition of cow's milk or water to increase volume. Such contamination cannot easily be detected before infant feeding."
The editorial called for better regulation of the collection and shipping of breast milk, and providing improved training for healthcare workers who advise new mothers. It said, "Milk bought online is far from an ideal alternative, exposing infants and other consumers to microbiological and chemical agents. Urgent action is required to make this market safer."