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Three Rivers Mothers’ Milk Bank will get breast milk to babies in need

Ben Schmitt
PTRBREASTMILK100615
Stephanie Strasburg | Trib Total Media
Founder Denise O'Connor of McCandless stands for a portrait in the future space of Three Rivers Mothers' Milk Bank in the Strip District on Monday, Oct. 5, 2015. She stands in front of where the bank's two pasteurizers will be once the space is up and running. O'Connor estimates November as their opening date.

For some babies, human breast milk is medicine.

Pittsburgh is about to become home to a breast-milk bank equipped with a pasteurization and bottling laboratory, freezers and a classroom. The nonprofit Three Rivers Mothers’ Milk Bank is taking shape in a 5,000-square-foot building on Penn Avenue in the Strip District.

The building is scheduled to open in November, says founder Denise O’Connor, two years after the organization became incorporated and raised more than $700,000 in grants from the area’s foundation and corporate community, along with individual donors.

“Every foundation that we went to totally embraced this project,” says O’Connor, a lactation consultant. “It’s a simple solution that helps better the lives for the families in need. We’re beyond excited.”

Breast milk protects preterm infants against diseases like necrotizing enterocolitis, or NEC, says Dr. Debra Bogen, the milk bank’s volunteer medical director. Human milk can decrease the risk of NEC by 80 percent. This serious gastrointestinal infection can be fatal.

In 2012, the American Academy for Pediatrics recommended all babies weighing 3.3 pounds or less receive human milk.

“If mother’s own milk is unavailable despite significant lactation support, pasteurized donor milk should be used,” the academy said in a statement.

According to the Human Milk Banking Association of North America, there are 19 HMBANA-accredited milk banks in the United States and Canada, and nine in the works.

“This is an incredible opportunity for our region,” says Bogen, also a pediatrician at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC. “The community is really behind it. There’s been an overwhelming response from women requesting to be screened and to be donors.”

So far, 50 women have approached Three Rivers and asked to donate excess breast milk and 30 are already enrolled in the application process, O’Connor says. Screening includes a telephone interview, health questionnaires and blood tests. Staff from the milk bank send forms to the donor’s doctor and her baby’s doctor.

“With her doctor, we’re asking if the donor is in good health and has any risk factors for blood-borne illnesses,” O’Connor says. “We have multiple layers of safety.”

The bank plans to sell the majority of the breast milk to nourish premature babies in neonatal intensive care units throughout Pennsylvania and West Virginia and possibly beyond. The price will be about $4.25 an ounce or less, O’Connor says. The remaining milk will go to outpatient infants with other conditions such as malabsorption disorders and allergies.

“For babies in need, their donated milk can absolutely be life-saving,” O’Connor says. “The evidence is so robust and clear that donor milk can help the most vulnerable infants.”

Ben Schmitt is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7991 or [email protected].

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