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Vancouver Island team fundraising to build a breastmilk bank for babies in Ukraine

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A humanitarian group from the West Shore of Vancouver Island is embarking on a new mission to create a regional breastmilk bank in the west of Ukraine.

The team has made three trips to the country since the war with Russia began. The result of those trips brought hundreds of thousands of dollars in medical and food aid to the people of Ukraine, but during the team's last trip to the war-torn country, they were taken aback by what they experienced.

In a children’s hospital in Ivano-Frankivsk, the team saw dozens of premature babies in the hospital’s neonatal unit.

“These babies are two pounds, three pounds, four pounds in weight,” said Bruce Brown, a member of the humanitarian team. “You could not really prepare yourself.”

It was a neonatal unit under immense pressure, overwhelmed by premature births.

“Born often as a result of stress-related childbirths that their mothers are having to deal with, due to the war,” said Brown.

Before the war, the hospital used to see on average four premature births per month. Since the war began, it now sees an average of 40 per month.

'The tinier the baby, the higher the risk'

“It’s really a problem,” said Oleg Atamnoik, a surgeon at the Ivano-Frankivsk children’s hospital.

Atamnoik works on the hospital’s front lines. He says many of those stressed mothers are unable to produce enough, if any, breastmilk to feed their fragile infants.

“Breastmilk is so important for a premature baby,” said Atamnoik.

“The tinier the baby, the higher the risk,” said Frances Jones, the coordinator of the B.C. Women’s Provincial Milk Bank.

Jones knows the benefits breastmilk can provide to a compromised infant.

She says because the internal systems of a premature infant are so undeveloped, human milk is absolutely crucial to a premature baby's survival.

“Being premature and receiving something other than human milk will increase your risk of developing NEC quite dramatically,” said Jones.

NEC, or necrotising enterocolitis, is a bowel disease that can lead to a bacterial infection, potentially killing the premature baby.

On Vancouver Island, breastmilk is collected through donors and then shipped to B.C. Women’s Hospital in Vancouver, where the milk is pasteurized. It is then distributed throughout the province.

Last year more than 4,000 children in B.C. received breastmilk through the hospital's breastmilk bank.

'They desperately need our help'

Now the Vancouver Island-based humanitarian team wants to create the same type of bank in Ukraine.

“We made a commitment based on a request from the hospital to support them in starting up a breastmilk bank,” said Bob Beckett, a member of the humanitarian team.

That bank would be located at the children’s hospital in Ivano-Frankivsk and would serve the entire region of around two million people.

“They desperately need our help,” said Beckett.

“If we can’t help them, I don’t know who will,” said Brown.

The team has a fundraising goal of $50,000. That would build the bank as well as purchase a human milk analyzer, a pasteurizer, medical freezer and a pharmaceutical refrigerator.

It's essential equipment that would save many tiny lives in Ukraine.

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