After hardliners, Bangladesh’s first human milk bank hits COVID-19 hurdle

Bangladesh’s first human milk bank stalled once after running into opposition by a group of Islamists last year, and it faces another prodigious hurdle now: the coronavirus outbreak.

Obaidur Masum Senior
Published : 7 June 2020, 04:30 AM
Updated : 7 June 2020, 04:30 AM

The hardliners had resisted the idea of a milk bank that could create the risk of marriage between people who have drunk the milk of the same woman, something forbidden in Islam.

But the Islamic scholars softened their stance on the issue after the authorities defended the government’s Institute of Child and Mother Health or ICMH, arguing many other Muslim-majority countries have breast milk banks.

Fitted with imported machinery, the milk bank in Dhaka's Matuail for vulnerable and motherless infants was supposed to open on Dec 1 last year.

But the machines costing over Tk 100 million have been left to gather dust for a long time now.

“Maybe the Alems [Islamic scholars] think that foreign donor agencies provide the funds. But those who have donated the money are all Muslims. I now sometimes switch the machines on to keep them from breaking down,” said Project Coordinator Dr Mojibur Rahman.       

He says the milk bank will always be careful so no religious law is violated.   

The milk from one mother will be provided to only one baby. The milk from a male baby’s mother will go to a male baby only while a female baby’s mother will donate milk to a female baby, according to Mojibor.

He believes keeping a record of both the mothers and the babies will prevent a mix-up.

The ICMH had sent papers to the Islamic Foundation assuring the Muslim leaders of steps to ensure compliance with religious rules.  

“Besides the Alems, representatives of the health ministry, Health Services Directorate and religious affairs ministry were supposed to sit with us. Even the Alems agreed to hold back their objection on some conditions.

“But that meeting has not taken place,” Mojibor added, blaming the coronavirus crisis for the missed opportunity.

The relatives of a teacher of Viqarunnisa Noon School and College, who died recently after giving birth, appealed for help on social media to provide the newborn with human milk, according to him.    

“It would have been easy for the baby to get human milk if the milk bank was in operation. It’s been vindicated that human milk is essential for babies,” Mojibor said.

A guardian of a baby that did not get milk from its mother said there were no efforts to come to aid of such babies while many companies are busy marketing baby formula.

Human milk contains substances that cannot be synthesised, which helps the babies fight viruses and bacteria and protects them from pneumonia and septicaemia.

In particular it can protect the gut from rupturing, a potentially life-threatening condition called Necrotising enterocolitis.

Breast milk also has unique fats that help the immature brain, eye and nervous system develop better for improved intellect and sight.

Dr Md Shamsul Haque, line director at the Directorate General of Health Services, said the ICMH had contacted the directorate.

“We’ve made initial preparations. The Islamic Foundation has been included in the process for government permission. The foundation called a meeting at the Baitul Mukarram [National Mosque]. But it has been delayed due to the coronavirus,” Haque said.

Islamic Foundation Secretary Kazi Nurul Islam said they were looking “positively” at the issue. Some Islamic scholars outside of the foundation will also be invited to the meeting.

“We need to see whether we can allow it here as Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, Malaysia and many other Muslim countries have milk banks,” he said.

The Foundation was planning a workshop on the acceptability of milk banks in Islam, but postponed it due to the coronavirus crisis.

“We hope to hold it some other time,” Kazi Nurul added.

Supreme Court lawyer Mahmudul Hasan had sent a legal notice to the Ministry of Religious Affairs, Islamic Foundation, ICMH, Special Care Newborn Unit (SCANU) and Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) last year challenging the milk bank and demanding laying out proper conditions before launching it.

Citing Islamic rules, Mahmudul had said in the notice that children from different mothers become siblings when they drink milk from the same woman and marriage between siblings is haram.

But Mojibur, the project coordinator, said the ICMH had already fulfilled the conditions sought in the legal notice.

Dr Mohammad Shahidullah, the chairman of neonatology at the Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University, said there is no alternative to human milk for babies.

Breastfeeding cuts the risk of child death 21 percent, he said, citing a research.

“A baby may not get milk from its mother for one reason or another. That’s where a milk bank will come in handy,” he said.