Milking the human for profit

This week in health: heat-linked deaths, dispatches from the World Health Assembly, India’s tobacco epidemic and the perils of commercialising human breast milk.

Updated - June 05, 2024 10:32 am IST

Published - June 04, 2024 05:40 pm IST

Image for representational purpose only. File

Image for representational purpose only. File | Photo Credit: Getty Images

(In the weekly Health Matters newsletter, Ramya Kannan writes about getting to good health, and staying thereYou can subscribe here to get the newsletter in your inbox.)

We’ve filed this under ‘bizarre’, but feel free to give it more colourful adjectives. It started last week, when a raid by the Food Safety and Standards Association of India led them to a pharmacy that was selling breast milk - in various forms, both as liquid as well as powder, that could be stored and used over a period of time. The vendor had only an FSSAI license to sell protein powder, he seemed to think that gave him the go ahead to sell human breast milk. And make a huge profit of it — 50 ml was being sold for ₹500. Naturally, FSSAI sealed the unit: Chennai retail outlet sealed for selling breast milk. Startled by this commodification of an essential human product, produced to feed progeny, the FSSAI and health department launched searches across the State. 

These searches threw up a further nest where breast milk bottles and sachets were being labelled and sold as such, at huge prices, the centre of distribution identified at a pharmacy in Chennai. The milk was even supplied to a hospital, where the team found a stash of breast milk, and seized it. Read more, here: Breast milk bottles and sachets worth ₹7.87 lakh seized from distributor in Arumbakkam. The commercialisation of human products - whether organs, blood or breast milk - is prohibited by law. However, to help mothers who are not able to make lactation work, and struggle to feed their babies, voluntary breast milk donation centres have been started at various places in the country. This donated breast milk is then made available for the mothers/their infants in need.

On May 24, the FSSAI issued an advisory on the unauthorised commercialisation of human milk and its products. It noted that the FSSAI had not permitted processing and/or selling of human milk under the Food Safety and Standards Act, and advised that all activities related to commercialisation of human milk and its products be stopped immediately. Any violation may result in initiation of action against the food business operators (FBO). State and Central licencing authorities were told to ensure that no licence/registration was granted to FBOs involved in the processing or selling of “mother’s milk/human milk”. Meanwhile, the searches continue, and the days ahead will tell us how deep this racket actually runs.  

Further on trading in human parts, Mohamed Imranullah S. writes from the Madras High Court: ‘Medicare is a huge business’, says Madras High Court, and doubts fairness in authorising organ transplantations. Justice G.R. Swaminathan said there are reasons to believe that organ transplantation applications submitted through big corporate hospitals were being approved without assigning any reason while the applications received from lesser-known private hospitals were being withheld or rejected. In an earlier judgement, he had ruled that consent given by a donor, even if he/she is not related to the recipient, must be accepted by the authorisation committee at its face value unless there is evidence to prove money or money’s worth having changed hands. These judgements are likely to have far-reaching implications for organ transplantation in the country, not necessarily positive. The Transplantation of Human Organs Act was written primarily to ensure that organ commerce is completely stamped out, referring the so called ‘altruistic’ donations to a committee to ensure that the poor are not exploited. By no means can a situation be allowed to recur where donation and transplantation of human organs is sullied by commercial intent. 

Staying on the milk thread, this one is about cow’s milk. As the world remains concerned that H5N1 has clearly jumped species to humans, R Prasad writes that H5N1 remains infectious on milking equipment for over one hour. He quotes a preprint study (yet to be peer-reviewed), in which researchers found that H5N1 virus in unpasteurised milk remains infectious on milking equipment for over one hour. Message from this one: Do not drink raw milk. But don’t take just our word for it; it is what the Centers for Disease Control has advised too. For more on the avian influenza, read our report: Centre asks States to be vigilant.

The heat in the country has been searing, as we have been recording from time to time. This election season that way generated the most heat, not all of it from the intense political battles. Some cities recorded over 50°C, half the temperature needed to boil water. This has not been good for the people, particularly those who could not stay indoors, or those who do not have access to tools to cool themselves down. As a result, 80 deaths due to confirmed and suspected heat strokes and 605 due to cardiovascular diseases were recorded, Bindu Shajan Perappadan reports. Of the 80 deaths due to heat strokes, including both confirmed and suspected cases, reported across the country in May, 56 were confirmed cases of death due to heat strokes between March and May of 2024. Of this, 46 occurred in May alone. The Health Ministry’s data on heat-related illness and deaths also recorded 605 deaths reported due to various cardiovascular diseases. The temperature was lowered slightly with welcome showers, what with the early setting of the Southwest monsoon, but people including children and senior citizens need to take precautions until the danger is past.

Moving on to TB, a health issue of great concern to the sub-continent, Siddharth Kumar Singh writes about a TB screening tool launched to enhance healthcare access for vulnerable groups. Health tech platform eKure has partnered with the Telangana State TB Cell to develop an initial screening tool for tuberculosis (TB) and other chronic conditions. The tool will leverage accessible solutions, such as interactive multilingual WhatsApp bots, to aid in the initial presumptive detection of TB. It aims to enhance access to doctor teleconsultations, provide affordable health products and disseminate credible, disease-specific information to vulnerable population groups. Look in our explainers section for a good primer on the tobacco epidemic in India.  

Turning the lens on gender, Serena Josephine M. makes use of the occasion of World Menstrual Health Day on May 28 to explain how parents can start conversations about periods with their wards, not just the girls, but also the boys. It’s so important to start that conversations and keep it going, and not passively let the school or the child’s friends take that job over. More on menstruation itself, Himani Gupta and M. Sivakami write about the state of menstrual hygiene in Indian prisons

Further, it is good to know that India highlighted its commitment to implement proactive actions for women and adolescents’ health at World Health Assembly. Something that we can hold our legislators too, when it comes to inadequate allocations for research into gender-specific health issues, or the availability of therapeutic solutions for the same. 

On a day when the lead story is bizarre in itself, it is unlikely the tail piece will rival it, so time to let this section go, this week. 

Since we do explainers rather well, here is a selection:

Varun Raj Passi and Parthi Sharma write an elaborate piece on the tobacco epidemic in India.

In the ‘In Focus podcast’, G. Sampath explains: At the 77th World Health Assembly, what’s standing in the way of a Pandemic Agreement? We had earlier told you about the Agreement.

D. P. Kasbekar explains: How an altered protein and fussy neurons conspire to cause microcephaly.

Dr. S. Srinivas talks about IBD among children and the rise of paediatric inflammatory bowel disease in India.

From the Health page

C. Maya on the new method to generate virus-like particles, to help with developing antibodies against Nipah.

Afshan Yasmeen reports: Alzheimer’s Disease International calls for extension to global action plan on public health response to dementia.

Problem of few leads to higher caseload and longer waiting time for cardiac surgeries in government hospitals in Tamil Nadu, writes Serena Josephine M. 

Pfizer drug extends life for people with rare form of lung cancer.

For many more health stories, head to our health page, and subscribe to the health newsletter, here.

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