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Breast Milk Sold Online May Contain Dangerous Levels of Deadly Bacteria

Update Date: Oct 21, 2013 02:20 PM EDT

Breast may be best for babies, but new research reveals that the same can't be said for breast milk sold online. 

A growing number of moms are going online to look for donated breast milk from other mothers who have more than they can feed their babies. However, new research reveals that three quarters of breast milk samples taken from one popular website contained harmful and potentially deadly bacteria.  In light of the latest findings, researchers from the Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, say that consumption of breast milk obtained online could be harmful and life threatening. 

Researchers said that drinking contaminated milk already sickened several babies.

While selling breast milk to others over the Internet has become a hit trend over recent years, researchers said the latest study is the first to examine the safety of selling breast milk to others online. Researchers noted that more than 13,000 ads were placed on four top milk-sharing websites in 2011.

For the study, researchers purchased breast milk listed for sale on a public websites and then analyzed it in the laboratory. Researchers found that 74 percent of the 101 breast milk samples had disease-causing bacteria like E. coli or harmful levels of bacteria such as Streptococci. The study also tested 20 control samples from a milk bank and found that seven samples contained disease-causing bacteria.

Researchers noted that milk banks are less likely to contain deadly bacteria because donors are carefully screened and milk is pasteurized before it is given to infants.

"We were surprised so many samples had such high bacterial counts and even fecal contamination in the milk, most likely from poor hand hygiene. We were also surprised a few samples contained salmonella," Sarah A. Keim, PhD, principal study investigator of the Center for Biobehavioral Health said in a news release. "Other harmful bacteria may have come from the use of either unclean containers or unsanitary breast milk pump parts."

Salmonella, which is also found in animal feces and raw chicken, can cause fever, abdominal cramps, diarrhea and in severe cases can lead to death. 

Shipping practices also played a significant role in the levels of bacteria in breast milk purchased online. Researchers explained that the longer the shipping time, the more contaminated the milk. Researchers also found that one in five sellers did not include dry ice or an alternative cooling method, and the temperature of the milk was outside of recommended range for storage.

The study found particularly high levels of one or more types of bacteria in 17 percent of the samples studied.

While all human breast milk contains some bacteria crucial for building up babies' immune systems, researchers said these were not the bacteria looked at in the study.

Researchers said that babies are especially vulnerable when exposed to harmful bacterial because their immune systems are still developing. Contaminated milk is also particularly harmful for premature babies or those with weakened immune systems.

"Major milk-sharing websites post a lot of guidance about milk collection, storage, shipping and provider screening. However, results from this study showed sellers do not often follow this advice because hygiene and shipping practices were often compromised," added Keim.

"Based on our research, it is not safe to buy breast milk online, and the Food and Drug Administration recommends against sharing milk obtained in that way. Recipients are not able to determine for sure if the milk has been tampered with, or contains harmful drugs or pharmaceuticals, or if the information the provider supplied about their health was truthful," she said.

Researchers recommend that parents turn to milk banks if mothers cannot provide milk. This is because donors received proper instructions and the milk is pasteurized, thus limiting the risk of bacterial illness. Mothers with too much milk should also consider donating it to a milk bank, where it can be handled properly.

The findings are published in the journal Pediatrics

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