A researcher and human milk immunologist at New York’s Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai believes that breast milk may be the key to an antibody treatment for SARS-Cov-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.
Because honestly, is there anything too strong for breast milk?
Rebecca Powell is a human milk immunologist and she believes that breast milk from mamas who test positive for SARS-CoV-2 may hold lots of answers.
Powell is with New York’s Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York. Since March, she’s been connecting with mothers who tested positive and then were told to stop breastfeeding their babies.
One such mom is Michelle Agard. In an article in Business Insider, Agard said that once her doctors found out she was positive for the coronavirus, they told her to stop nursing her newborn and 1-year-old child because they didn’t know whether or not the virus could be transmitted through breast milk. Agard said it was horrible to pump all the milk and then just watch it literally go down the drain.
She had to stop nursing for three weeks to follow doctor’s recommendations.
Powell believes there’s something in the milk of mothers like Agard, though, that can help treat the virus. To date, she has personally collected over 50 samples of breast milk and her lab has received more than 800 samples.
Experts believe there’s merit in antibody therapy that can weaken the virus or even help prevent infection, but most research has focused on blood and plasma, not breast milk.
Powell said that antibodies in breast milk are especially tough compared to ones found in blood (of course they are!) since they are created specifically to survive the rough terrain of an infant’s respiratory tract and gut. She said that antibody responses tend to longer for a long time, especially if from infection. If you were treated with measles as a child, she supposes, you’d possibly have a lifetime immunity to measles.
Powell first studied about the transmission of viruses through breast milk with HIV. That work led her to study how antibodies in breastmilk affected the flu, and now she’s working with breastmilk. According to her research, 80% of the survivor moms she’s tested had coronavirus antibodies in their breast milk.
So why aren’t we rallying around this research and working to do more? Why are we still hearing about doctors telling mothers they can’t nurse their babies?
Powell says that she believes it’s the fact that the woman’s body, and breasts and breastfeeding are still considered taboo in a lot of ways. They’ve been strangely sexualized, and unfortunately, people shy away from research that involves nursing or breasts.
There’s already plenty of research that shows breast milk prevents viruses and disease in infants, but fewer than half of babies in the U.S. are exclusively breastfed.
According to the article, some moms decided to continue to nurse despite their children’s positive results. Aimee Parrow was one such mom. Her daughter Layla was born a preemie, and was 13-months old when she began developing COVID-like symptoms. Parrow is a neonatologist at New York’s Weill Cornell Medicine. She said when Layla was really sick, she wouldn’t take a bottle. She only wanted to be nursed, and Parrow wasn’t concerned about giving her anything because Layla already had it.
Parrow recommends mothers continue to nurse even after they’ve been diagnosed as positive. The problem is that sometimes that decision is stolen from a mom, as in Agard’s case. She said the doctors told her to stop immediately. She was thankful she survived and her kids and mother were okay, but she sought Powell out, hoping her milk may have contained antibodies. She can’t give blood to her children, but she felt good to be able to give breast milk.
No one obviously knows how long antibody immunity lasts, and some experts worry about false senses of security thinking their antibody protection is longer than it may be.
But Powell hopes more funding and more data can help uncover more about how breast milk antibodies can make a difference against the coronavirus.
Of course it can. Because it’s breast milk, and it’s amazing.
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