I thought I knew all there was to know about the International Breast Milk Project. Apparently, there’s more.
The International Breast Milk Project was a project created by Jill Youse to donate breast milk to HIV+ orphans in an orphanage in Africa named iThemba Lethu. On the IBMP’s “About” page, they state, “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.”
Upon reading this, you might get the impression that these African orphans would never receive breast milk if not for the valiant efforts of Jill Youse and the International Breast Milk Project.
That’s exactly what Prolacta wants you to think. The rest of the story may surprise you.
iThemba Lethu, the orphanage made world-famous by the hoopla surrounding the International Breast Milk Project, has received breast milk, donated from South African moms and pasteurized by their own South African breast milk bank, since August 2001. The bank was funded entirely by UNICEF, and the person who made this happen is a South African woman named Anna Coutsoudis. At times, the South African breast milk bank has even had more milk than the children needed.
Prolacta had nothing to do with this.
So why create the International Breast Milk Project in April 2006 at all? There was no dire need for it. The African orphans of iThemba Lethu were already receiving plenty of donated breast milk. They were thriving, not starving, like the International Breast Milk Project has implied. The South African milk bank didn’t need rescuing; it was tremendously successful all by itself, for almost five years before Jill Youse came along. The children were all getting the breast milk they needed, and pretty efficiently, too, with a local milk bank supplied by South African donors. A milk bank that often enough had more milk than the children needed. They didn’t need milk from the United States, though of course they weren’t going to turn it down.
Here’s another question. Why, instead of creating the International Breast Milk Project (which was totally unnecessary since the problem it addresses had already been solved), didn’t Jill Youse create the United States Breast Milk Project, whereby she donates breast milk to needy orphans right here in the USA? Aren’t there HIV+ orphans in this country who need breast milk and aren’t getting it? Hmmmm… Maybe because giving away Prolacta’s product for free in this country would set an undesirable precedent for the company’s future. After all, if you just give it away, then why should anybody pay for it? How do you determine who’s destitute enough to receive free milk and who must fork out the $184.83 per ounce? Prolacta’s target market is, after all, babies in the NICU, all of whom can be considered “in-need.”
Or maybe it had nothing to do with that, and everything to do with the positive public relations shipping milk halfway around the world would generate. Yep, that’s probably more like it.
The great irony here is that the International Breast Milk Project may actually undermine South Africa’s existing breast milk bank in the long run. If iThemba Lethu gets all its milk from the International Breast Milk Project and not from South Africa’s own breast milk bank, what motivation do South African women have to continue donating? What incentive is there for the milk bank to continue to improve, if all the work of acquiring and pasteurizing the milk is done beforehand? Do this for long enough, and the old “Give a man a fish vs. Teach a man to fish” parable comes to life in reverse. With enough free milk from the International Breast Milk Project, the art of milk banking in South Africa may eventually die off.
It would be one thing if the International Breast Milk Project had been created in the absence of an already existing milk bank. But that’s not the way it happened.
Edit (7/24/2007): It has recently come to my attention that iThemba Lethu houses a total of six children. SIX. From all the media coverage, you’d think there were hundreds, if not thousands, of HIV+ babies in the orphanage receiving breast milk from the International Breast Milk Project, but it’s only six??? Six children who were already being provided with breast milk from their homeland? How much sense does it make to create a multi-million-dollar program to feed six infants breast milk from another continent when they’re already getting breast milk from their own in-house milk bank?