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Breast Milk Bought Online May Contain Harmful Germs

Nearly three-quarters of samples from an Internet milk-sharing site contained microbes that could make a baby sick

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In healthy babies, CMV causes a mild flu-like illness that's rarely serious, Marinelli said. But for premature infants and those with compromised immune function, the virus can be very dangerous.

"If preemies get milk with CMV in it, they can get everything from a systemic illness that can put them back on a ventilator and make them really, really sick, to death, so you don't want them to get milk with CMV in it," said Marinelli, who is also a neonatologist at Connecticut Children's Medical Center, in Hartford.

Intriguingly, when the researchers compared the contamination in the purchased breast milk to unpasteurized samples that had been donated to a local breast milk bank, they found the donated samples were less likely to contain harmful germs.

Researchers say there may be a couple of reasons for the differences. The first is that milk banks carefully educate donors about safe collection and handling of breast milk. Some websites also post safe-sharing guidelines, but buyers have no way to know whether sellers are actually following them.

And previous studies have found that almost one in three mothers never cleans her breast pump.

"What this experience has taught us is that when you open the box of milk that you've bought, there's really nothing that can reassure you that the milk is safe," said study researcher Sarah Keim, principal investigator in the Center for Biobehavioral Health at Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio.

Keim said the researchers logged all sorts of information about the milk they got to find patterns of problems that might signal contamination. Some of the milk was shipped with gel packs or dry ice to keep it cold, but that didn't seem to matter. The temperature of the milk when it reached the researchers didn't make a difference. The kind of container and its condition also didn't seem to play a role, nor did promises of healthy, fresh, or organic milk in ads placed by sellers.

"There was nothing that was helpful," Keim said. "You just don't know what you're getting."

In addition to bacteria and viruses, milk can contain traces of drugs and other environmental contaminates, like cigarette smoke.

Profit may also have a hand in how safe the milk is. In the 1950s, when blood banks paid people for blood and plasma, studies found that purchased samples were seven to 10 times more likely to carry diseases like hepatitis than donated samples. The theory was that people who needed to sell blood to make money were also less likely to be healthy than those who donated to patients.

"With the monetary piece in this, we're a little worried that people might be incentivized to do things that aren't 100 percent honest and safe," Keim said.

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