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Pasteurising breast milk using Holder method can inactivate coronavirus: Researchers

Breast milk contains secretory immunoglobulin A (sIgA) that can protect infants against infection and death.

Many human breast milk banks around the world use the Holder method to pasteurise milk to neutralize viruses that are known to be transmitted through human milk.

Written by Longjam Dineshwori |Published : July 12, 2020 2:54 PM IST

Breastmilk is the best source of nutrition for babies. Doctors recommend exclusive breastfeeding for the first 6 months of life, followed by continued breastfeeding with appropriate complementary foods for up to 2 years and beyond. But should a woman who is COVID-19 positive breastfeed her child? It is still not clear whether the virus can or cannot be transmitted through breast milk. But the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends mothers with suspected or confirmed COVID-19 to continue breastfeeding their infants, stating that the benefits of breast milk outweigh the potential risks for transmission. If you're still concern about breastfeeding your child, you can sterilize your breast milk to make it safe for consumption.

A new study published in the CMAJ (Canadian Medical Association Journal) has found that pasteurising breast milk using Holder method can inactivate the novel coronavirus. The Holder method, a common technique used to pasteurise milk, is known to be effective at neutralising viruses such as HIV, hepatitis, and others that are known to be transmitted through human milk. More than 650 human breast milk banks around the world use this technique to ensure a safe supply of milk for vulnerable infants, said the researchers from the University of Toronto in Canada.

They noted that in Canada, pasteurised breast milk is usually provided to very-low-birth-weight babies until their own mother's milk supply is adequate.

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How pasteurisation inactivates SARS-CoV-2 in breast milk

In the new study, researchers spiked human breast milk with a viral load of SARS-CoV-2 and tested samples to see the effect of pasteurization on the virus. They kept some samples at room temperature for 30 minutes and the rest were warmed to 62.5 C for 30 minutes. The novel coronavirus in the pasteurised milk was found to be inactivated after heating, which makes it safe for consumption.

"In the event that a woman who is COVID-19 positive donates human milk that contains SARS-CoV-2, the method of pasteurisation renders milk safe for consumption," IANS quoted study researcher Sharon Unger as saying.

Whether by transmission through the mammary gland or by contamination through respiratory droplets, skin, breast pumps and milk containers, this method is safe, Unger added.

This is the first research to study the impact of pasteurisation on coronaviruses in human milk.

Breastmilk can protect babies against illness

Another reason why mothers with COVID-19 should continue to breastfeed their babies is that breast milk contains secretory immunoglobulin A (sIgA) that can protect infants against infection and death. Researchers have detected IgA antibodies with reactivity to the COVID-19 virus in breastmilk of mothers previously infected with COVID-19. However, no adequate research has been done on the strength and durability of the antibodies to address protection from COVID-19 among breastfed infants.

Current evidence also suggests that the risk of COVID-19 infection is low among infants and that the infection is typically mild or asymptomatic. But experts are of the opinion that the consequences of not breastfeeding and separation from mother can be far more harmful to the babies. The WHO also agrees that COVID-19 in infants and children represents a much lower threat to survival and health than other infections that may result from not breastfeeding. In addition, breastfeeding can protect moms against breast cancer, ovarian cancer and type 2 diabetes.

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