Looking for The Lactivist? She's retired. But you CAN still find Jen blogging. These days, she's runs A Flexible Life. Join her for life, recipes, projects and the occasional rant.
Tuesday, May 22, 2007Man do I hate asking questions like that. I mean who wants to be the jerk that questions the intentions of a group that aims to provide breast milk to AIDS orphans in a third world country?
I've been sitting on this post for awhile now trying to decide if I should publish it, or simply keep responding to the emails that I receive almost weekly from moms looking to donate to this organization. Then I saw that Mothering.com had decided to promote the International Breast Milk Project as their "activism alert" in their newsletter, and I realized that the time had come to speak up and say something.
I've made no secret of my dislike for Prolacta. I've even written posts cautioning mothers about "The National Milk Bank" and other non-HMBANA affiliated banks that are usually serving as a front for Prolacta.
I wonder, how many Mothering readers know that Prolacta is the group now "funding" and "running" the International Breast Milk Project?
Now, let me say that I have a great deal of respect for Jill Youse and her idea of setting up this organization. I think it's a beautiful idea and brings much needed attention to the HIV/AIDS crisis and the problems with formula use in third-world countries. In fact, I wrote about this project back when I first heard about it.
From the IBMP site:
The International Breast Milk Project is the first organization in the world to provide donor breast milk from the United States to babies orphaned by disease and poverty. The first batch of donor milk arrived to the iThemba Lethu orphan home in April 2006. The organization was founded by Jill Youse and her brother Will Harlan. Over 800 moms have applied to donate to the Breast Milk Project.
Now I understand that shipping milk to Africa is AMAZINGLY expensive. The cost of keeping that milk frozen and of safely transporting it is extremely high. Thus, it only makes sense that Youse needed to partner with a company to take care of the cost of processing and transporting the milk.
I just wish she'd chosen someone other than Prolacta.
I've got two primary issues with this arrangement and I think that any mom preparing to donate to the International Breast Milk Project needs to be aware of them and needs to consider them before making her choice of where to donate.
1.) Money. Apart from the very high cost of processing and shipping all that milk, there's the cost in screening donors, shipping them free hospital grade pumps, sending them free storage bottles and covering the full cost of shipping and materials to safely get the milk from donor mom to the Prolacta processing center.
Now, if all of the money put toward that was simply sent to Africa to allow them to work on setting up their own system of screening mothers and collecting local milk, I have to believe that it would go MUCH further than it will with the current setup.
In fact, this quote is from the IBMP web site:
We funded our first two banks in October 2006 established by Dr. Peter McCormick. Setting up small banks in rural Africa to benefit fragile, sick, preterm babies is neither expensive nor complicated: Dr. McCormick's milk banks cost less than $1000. Our goal is to continue to support this effort by implementing 4 hospital based banks in 2007-2008.
If that's the case...why collect milk here at all? Why not use all those collection funds to start new banks in Africa? Quite honestly, there's just something that feels condescending to me about shipping over our American milk to "save" their babies rather than helping them make use of their own resources to save even MORE babies.
2.) Lack of Disclosure. Quite honestly, this is the biggie. I've had a LOT of email in the last six months from mothers that had/have signed on to donate to this organization. Every last one of them went through the screening process and went so far as to receive their donor kit before finding out that everything was being run through Prolacta. Most of them emailed me when they could not get a straight answer from Prolacta about whether or not the milk they donated would be going to Africa or into Prolacta's American milk bank. (Which charges hospitals roughly 10x more than HMBANA banks.)
I did some digging around and turned up a few things that simply don't add up.
Over 800 moms have applied to donate to the Breast Milk Project. (from the IBMP site.)
Some of your milk goes to babies in Africa and some of your milk stays here for critically ill babies in hospitals. Exactly how depends on how much you send and how much room is left in our shipment. (from the IBMP site)
"The average donor is probably pumping 800 to 1,000 ounces for a shipment, but it really varies. It could be 100 ounces; it could be 2,000."
(from Foreign Policy)
"All milk from qualified donors is pooled together in large batches when production begins, starting with the oldest milk in the freezers. This varies as milk from different donors becomes available. So percentages may vary from batch to batch. I can tell you that we have made the commitment to send 5,000 ounces twice a year to Africa and that the milk that comes into this bank is given priority to that commitment. Any amount of milk that is received beyond that will go to premature infants in the United States to enable additional donations to Africa. "
(from an email sent from "Robin" at Prolacta to one of my readers)
So let's do the potential math there...
800 moms times an average of 500 ounces each. (Let's cut the above quoted average of 1000 ounces in half) = 400,000 ounces per year
Prolacta's commitment to Africa = 10,000 ounces per year (for those not so great at math, that's enough to feed two children 32 ounces a day for 5 months.)
Even if the IBMP is only bringing in half of my already halved estimate...that's 200,000 ounces a year of which 5% is being shipped to Africa and the rest is being used by Prolacta state side.
Does that seem wrong to anyone else?
Now, for full on accuracy, the Prolacta site says that all money "earned" from the breast milk donated to this project goes back into funding the project.
Well, let's see. If they have 390K ounces of excess per year that they are selling at $35 an ounce. That's umm...$13.6 million.
Again, I ask...does anyone else feel like something a little strange is going on here?
I emailed Prolacta myself to try and get some answers from them on exactly how much of the milk that's donated to the IBMP will end up in Africa. I emailed three people. Twice. I could not get a response.
I'd love for them to respond now.
I want to believe that while I disagree with a lot of things about the way Prolacta is run and the way that they represent themselves, that they really are supporting this project with 100% openness and honesty.
Based on what I can find on the Prolacta and IBMP sites and in the news, what I'm hearing from donor moms and the lack of response to any questions I put forth to their staff, I'm left with the cynical thought that Prolacta has found a wonderful tear-jerker cause upon which to build a for-profit milk banking business.
Thinking about donating to the International Breast Milk Project?
How about writing a check to an HIV/AIDS orphan charity and donating your milk to a non-profit HMBANA milk bank instead?