Dec 14, 2023 - News

Arkansas' first milk bank giving donations to infants in need

Illustration of a battery icon, but the outline is shaped like a bottle of milk.

Illustration: Maura Losch/Axios

Arkansas' first milk bank is up and running, and new moms in NWA can contribute.

Huh? Milk banks like the newly established one at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in Little Rock take donated breast milk, then pasteurize, package and distribute it. Donations can be made at depots like Mercy Hospital in Rogers.

Why it matters: The milk bank will prioritize providing donor milk to sick and preterm babies whose mothers are unable to breastfeed in neonatal intensive care, its executive medical director, Misty Virmani, told Axios.

Be smart: Babies born early often don't have strong immune systems, as their intestines aren't well developed and are more likely to allow pathogens and bacteria in, causing infections. Breast milk helps develop their intestines, strengthening their immune systems.

  • Donated breast milk can make a "huge dent" in the number of babies who die from necrotizing enterocolitis, a gastrointestinal condition, Virmani said.
  • Of note: Virmani stressed how beneficial breastfeeding is to the health of new moms, too. Breastfeeding is a "reset button" on all metabolic functions after pregnancy and decreases the risk of heart attack, stroke and diabetes, she said.

Between the lines: Arkansas had the second-highest infant mortality rate in the country in 2021, with 8.59 deaths per 1,000 live births, according to the CDC.

Background: The Arkansas Legislature in 2021 passed Act 225 to establish an Arkansas milk bank, create a fund to support it and require the Health Department to make rules for transporting, processing and distributing breast milk.

The intrigue: Not all breast milk is created equal. Calorie content and nutrition varies by factors like how long ago the person breastfeeding gave birth. The milk given to sick infants depends on their needs and could be a combination of several donors' milk.

State of play: The milk bank opened in September and had 20,000 ounces of frozen milk and had received inquiries from 97 people as of Tuesday. It has not begun distributing the milk but aims to do so early next year, Virmani said.

How it works: Those who want to donate should contact the bank. UAMS has donors go through a screening process, including having lab work done, and will send donors any needed supplies.

What's next: The goal is to first provide a steady supply to the state's sickest and preterm babies but not necessarily to stop there if the milk bank gets enough donations. Eventually, it may provide milk in outpatient settings to NICU babies after they go home or to healthy babies whose mothers are not with them or cannot breastfeed.

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