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Breast milk for sale: Risks and costs

Top athletes are always looking for an edge over their competition. And one of the latest more extreme trends to gain an advantage? Human breast milk. 

The benefits of breastfeeding infants are well established, and breastfeeding is strongly recommended by health care professionals. But that’s for babies. What about breast milk for adults? And what about breast milk as a way to bulk up and gain muscle weight? Or breast milk for treating certain kinds of cancer?

Before answering any of these questions, it’s best to start by asking, is it safe for adults to consume human breast milk at all?

The FDA says that there are a number of risks for consuming shared breast milk. These risks include “exposure to infectious diseases, including HIV, to chemical contaminants, such as some illegal drugs, and to a limited number of prescription drugs that might be in the human milk, if the donor has not been adequately screened.

In addition, if human milk is not handled and stored properly, it could, like any type of milk, become contaminated and unsafe to drink.”

A quick search on Facebook marketplace will show you that breast milk sharing and selling isn’t hypothetical. It’s already happening. Selling breast milk is not illegal [it is in SA]. It is unregulated.

“When human milk is obtained directly from individuals or through the internet, the donor is unlikely to have been adequately screened for infectious disease or contamination risk,” according to the FDA. In addition, the  FDA says it is not likely that human milk has been collected, processed, tested or stored in a way that reduces possible safety risks.

In an episode of the Netflix docuseries (Un)Well, “Bulking Up with Breast Milk,” these questions about breast milk usage are raised.

Netflix docuseries investigates

Dr Sarah Keim, Epidemiologist at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, was interviewed for the (Un)Well documentary series. She talked about a study she led that was published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine in 2015, titled, “More than a lucrative liquid: the risks for adult consumers of human breast milk bought from the online market.”

“I don’t think there’s really any circumstance, where one could recommend breast milk sharing,” Keim said. “Unless you have a lab in your kitchen, you really can’t test the milk yourself and know that it’s completely safe.”

Keim’s warnings aren’t hyperbole. Her study tested 102 samples of breast milk from across the country and showed that breast milk bought online contained detectable bacteria in 93 percent of the samples.

“Some of the samples have such high bacterial content, it’s closer to sewer water,” she said.

The study says that “the lack of pasteurization and testing not only indicates a bacterial risk but breast milk also exposes consumers to a host of infectious diseases, including cytomegalovirus, hepatitis B and C, HIV-1/2, HTLV-I&II and syphilis.”

Keim’s study came to the conclusion that breast milk purchased online is not optimal for adult nutrition or in the treatment of disease, as there are more risks than proven benefits.

“As adult consumers are generally ineligible for milk banks, unless milk is coming from a known source – a lactating partner, for instance – it comes from an online source and therefore poses many unknown potentials for communicable disease. Buying online potentially exposes the consumer to bacteria, viruses and contaminants that render this not a ‘clean’ ‘super food’ for performance nutrition or supplementation.”

Where breast milk is needed most

However, there are safe ways to get human breast milk for babies. The FDA recommends that, if after consultation with a health care provider, people who decide to feed a baby with human milk from a source other than the baby’s mother, should only use milk from a source that has screened its milk donors and taken other precautions to ensure the safety of its milk.

There is another concern to consider when asking whether adults should consume human breast milk, is there enough? ….. Read the full article

The situation in South Africa

In South Africa breast milk is classified as human tissue and is covered by the Human Tissue Act. Just as it is illegal to buy or sell organs or blood, so too, is it illegal to buy or sell breast milk.

For further information, read this article from the Human Milk Banking Association of South Africa (HMBASA) website, called ”To Pay or Not to Pay” by lactation consultant Penny Reimers regarding the legality of buying or selling breast milk.

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