Newborn Gets Meningitis From Contaminated Breast Pump

Newborn Gets Meningitis From Contaminated Breast Pump

Investigations found the bacteria on the mum's breast pump, as well as in the drain of her kitchen sink.

For a newborn, breastmilk offers more than just nourishment and comfort. It provides valuable protection from a range of germs, through the antibodies it contains. A baby getting a dangerous infection from breastmilk is very rare… unless the milk is contaminated by something else. This news of breast milk bacterial contamination that destroyed a newborn’s brain, highlights the importance of breast pump hygiene. 

breast milk bacterial contamination

Breast milk bacterial contamination is rare, but can happen. How can mums prevent it? PHOTO: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Premature baby contracts deadly bacterial infection

In 2017, a baby girl in Pennsylvania, USA, was born prematurely at just 29 weeks. At around three weeks of age she showed signs of a severe infection. 

Tests conducted showed the presence of the bacteria Cronobacter sakazakii in her spinal fluid. The little one’s infection worsened and she developed severe meningitis. 

Dr. Anna Bowen is a medical epidemiologist with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta. She says the baby’s brain tissue was destroyed by the infection, which also caused “profound developmental delays.”

Puzzled by how the baby contracted such a rare infection (only around four to six cases are heard in the US every year), investigations were launched to trace its source. 

Usually, this type of bacterial infection in babies is linked to baby milk formula. So naturally, that’s where the investigation started. But the baby had never been given formula. 

Shockingly, the infection was eventually traced to the expressed breast milk the baby had been drinking. 

Dr Bowen explains: “We went sort of hunting down new avenues looking at all of the food exposures that this infant has had, as well as some environmental exposures and medication exposures, and wound up finding the Cronobacter only in the breast pump used at home as well as the milk samples that had been pumped at home.” 

What’s more, the same bacteria was found in the drain of the kitchen sink in the mum’s home. Rather than blaming the mum, though, Dr Bowen calls for more awareness and guidance for new mums on how to pump their breastmilk safely. 

“This case touched us very deeply and made us question whether women were getting the guidance they needed to pump their milk as safely as possible for their babies,” said Dr. Bowen. “Breastfeeding is really one of the best things that a mother can do for her baby’s health and development and we applaud mothers for pumping when the baby isn’t able to directly breastfeed.”

breast milk bacterial contamination

If your breast pump and its parts are not cleaned and stored properly, germs can thrive on it.

What do the experts say? 

Dr Sharon Unger is a Toronto-based paediatrician and medical director of Toronto’s breastmilk bank. She explains that while it’s quite common for expressed breastmilk to get contaminated, this is the first time that she’s seen a Cronobacter infection linked to breastmilk. 

In fact, human milk naturally has many bacteria in it that don’t cause infection in full-term, healthy newborns. 

However, a preterm baby is different in that their immune system is terribly under-developed and vulnerable to infection. This is probably how the baby contracted the infection. 

Dr Unger adds, 

“Further, this is a reason for always pasteurizing human donor milk and not informally sharing such that we can assure the safety of donor milk. We do not pasteurize mother’s milk for her own infant as we want the infant to be colonized with the same bacteria as the mother both by providing her breastmilk and by the infant having skin to skin care.” 

How can you prevent breast milk bacterial contamination?

If you are using donated breast milk from a government-regulated breastmilk bank, then you can rest assured that all donated milk is carefully screened and tested.

You should exercise caution when getting donated breastmilk through personal contacts, or other sources (e.g. online groups). 

Additionally, breastfeeding mums should stick to stringent hygiene rules when expressing their milk and cleaning and storing the breast pump. 

Here are some tips for you to remember: 

  • Wash your hands thoroughly before handling your breast pump; wipe the outside of your pump with disinfectant wipes
  • Disassemble all your pump parts after every use and rinse them under running water; don’t place them directly in the sink
  • As soon as time permits, clean your pump parts with hot, soapy water with a brush solely dedicated to cleaning your pump
  • Scrub the parts well
  • Air dry the parts; don’t use a towel for the towel itself might harbour germs
  • Clean and air dry your brush as well
  • Store the parts in a clean and dry area only after they are completely dry
  • Chill the milk immediately after pumping
  • Clean the sink that you use to wash your pump
  • If you’re using the dishwasher, do a hot water and heated drying cycle or a sanitising cycle

In addition to these tips, check your breast pump often for dirt and mold that can collect in hidden spots, such as the tubing and valve membranes. If you spot any mold or dirt, considering changing these parts. 

If someone other than you, like your helper or husband, assists with cleaning your breast pump and its parts, then they too should be aware of the above hygiene rules. 

Keeping this information in mind, you can easily prevent breast milk bacterial contamination, mums. 

Also read: 8 Fruits to eat for better breastmilk production

Sources: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), CBA News

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