Breast milk. It’s a baby’s perfect food, providing all the necessary nutrients and antibodies to help infants thrive. For some mothers, the thought of obtaining breast milk from someone else is inconceivable. For other mothers, like those who want to breastfeed but can’t, for whatever reason, it’s a very real option. At least in some parts of the world.
It’s estimated that around 11 million children under the age of five die each year. According to the Lancet Child Survival Series, up to 13 percent of those children could be saved by breastfeeding or breastmilk alone. Which means that scaling human milk banking centers has the potential to save around 1 million babies annually, in theory anyway.
Human milk banks have been gaining traction around the world, especially since 2008, when the WHO called for the member nations of the World Health Assembly to promote the use of safe donor milk to improve infant health in some of the poorest nations of the world. The problem, however, is that scaling these efforts in poor countries is difficult. India is one country where making milk banks work on a larger scale is no easy thing.
So it’s good that two global development titans have taken notice of India’s human milk bank challenges—the Gates Foundation and PATH.
Gates recently awarded PATH a one-year, $300,000 grant so the agency can provide assistance for human milk banking in India. Human milk banking has been on PATH's radar for a while, but Gates came later to this issue, and PATH quickly became its go-to organization.
Gates’ first milk banking grant to PATH was awarded in 2012, and didn’t focus on India specifically. Instead, the nearly $200,000 grant went toward gathering experts in the field to help create a global implementation framework. That's typical Gates: First get clear on the big picture and research, then start writing the bigger checks for implementation.
The foundation’s next milk banking grant to PATH was just under $1 million. This grant was more tech-focused, going toward the development of a low-cost, cell-phone-based network to monitor and ensure the safety of breast milk that has been designated for donation.
Given its Family Health and Nutrition grantmaking programs (the former focusing on maternal, newborn, and child health), it comes as no surprise that the Gates Foundation is interested in milk banking. So far, though, its investments have been modest compared to what this funder can do when it's really excited about something. In light of the potential to save lives by bringing human milk banking centers to scale, we're betting that more Gates money will be headed to this area in future years. Maybe a lot more.