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University of California Health launches human donor milk bank to help newborns

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Revised date: January 11, 2021

University of California Health has launched an innovative human milk bank to help improve the lives of newborns, infants and their families. The new University of California Health Milk Bank, operated by UC San Diego Health, is only the second one in California to be accredited by the Human Milk Banking Association of North America (HMBANA) and is the only milk bank in the nation that is part of a health care system.

“A human milk bank is such an important resource for our communities. Human milk is critical for the growth and development of infants, and it protects them from infection. Having human milk is an investment in the long-term health of these very fragile infants,” said Dr. Carrie L. Byington, executive vice president of University of California Health (UCH) and a pediatrician and infectious disease specialist. “This is just the kind of innovation our academic health system can undertake to support the health of infants. In addition to providing a lifeline through donated human milk to babies in need, we will also educate, support and empower families about infant nutrition.” UCH has active maternity and neonatal programs at its academic health centers, including its children’s hospitals.

Pasteurized, donated human milk is critical for feeding sick and premature infants when there may not be a sufficient milk supply for their baby’s nutritional needs.

The University of California Health Milk Bank, located at the San Diego Blood Bank, will help support neonatal intensive care units (NICUs) and families in the region and the state.  

Improving the lives of fragile babies is a key focus for Dr. Lisa Stellwagen, executive director and medical director for University of California Health Milk Bank. Stellwagen, who also is a professor in the Department of Pediatrics at UC San Diego School of Medicine, has years of clinical and academic experience, with expertise in milk banking, infant nutrition, chest/breast-feeding and medical care of newborns. The University of California Health Milk Bank is the only nonprofit milk bank in North America directed by a physician.

“California has high rates of feeding with human milk, but there is a huge distribution problem that has resulted in shortages of pasteurized donor milk for ill or premature infants. More than a decade of scientific evidence has shown the important benefits of human milk for the smallest infants. That’s why having access to donor milk is so crucial especially for NICUs which are caring for the most fragile babies,” said Stellwagen. “We aim to address these shortages and disparities in donor milk use in our region.”

A milk bank accepts and processes donations to provide safe, pasteurized human milk product for hospitalized and/or fragile children. Healthy chest/breastfeeding or pumping parents are welcome to contribute to the University of California Health Milk Bank. Milk donors must complete an extensive questionnaire, are carefully tested before donation, and have 100 ounces or more of extra frozen milk. The milk is also tested and processed using high quality laboratory practices.

Families may have questions about the safety of donated milk during the COVID-19 pandemic. A recent study conducted by researchers at UC San Diego School of Medicine and UCLA suggests the virus that causes COVID-19 does not appear to be transmitted through human milk. The researchers also added the virus into milk from two donors who were not infected and then pasteurized it. They found no virus survived the heating process, demonstrating the safety of pasteurized donor milk. 

Patty Maysent, CEO of UC San Diego Health added, “UC San Diego Health is honored to play a central role in the new milk bank. We are deeply committed to providing patients with access to comprehensive care, and the service provided by the milk bank will enable us to further fulfill that commitment. The impact to families will be tremendous and reflective of our mission and vision to deliver outstanding patient care and create healthier lives.”

The University of California Health Milk Bank expands the services of a previous, smaller program at UC San Diego Health. Hannah and Zach Johnson supported the original program and helped fund the expansion with a $4 million donation. Additional financial support has come from Geneviève Tremblay Jacobs and Paul Jacobs, among other donors.

“Our passion for this project came from recognizing how many health issues can be linked back to childhood nutrition and how improvements early on can really impact the lifelong health of people in our community,” said Hannah Johnson.

More information about the University of California Health Milk Bank is available at www.UCmilkbank.ucsd.edu.

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