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The Mothers' Milk Bank Depot in Salt Lake City put out a plea Friday for nursing moms who produce excess milk to consider donating their extra ounces to help save fragile infants whose lives can depend on the "liquid gold."

Utah, known for its high birth rate and healthy lifestyles, usually ranks high among the 13 donor sites that contribute milk to the Mothers' Milk Bank in Denver, where it gets pasteurized, bottled and distributed to 80 hospitals in 24 states.

The Depot, part of University of Utah Health Care's Redwood Health Center, typically ships more than 500 ounces per week to Denver, but those donations have fallen sharply this summer.

"The shortage is desperate enough that the bank in Denver reached out to us and said we're usually one of their best donors, what's going on? And that hasn't happened before," said Christy Porucznik, who co-directs Salt Lake City's Mothers' Milk Bank Depot.

Porucznik attributed the decrease to the possibility that many families are taking summer vacation trips.

"Milk donations are not like blood donations," Porucznik said. "These women are collecting during the course of their routine lives" — pumping milk at home or on the job, and then freezing it.

"You're not going to take your pump to Zion (National Park)," Porucznik said.

Laraine Borman, director of the Mothers' Milk Bank in Denver, said that in its 28 years of operation, milk supplies have never been so low.

"When it comes in, it gets processed and immediately goes out," Borman said. "We don't have a stockpile."

For that reason, she worries whether the Denver site — one of 12 such banks in North America — can continue to fill the needs of the neonatal intensive care units that rely on the vital food.

"Mothers' milk actually saves babies' lives because it prevents infections," Borman said. "Those little, fragile pre-term babies that we serve really need it."

Intermountain Healthcare hospitals use pasteurized human milk, said spokesman Jess Gomez, but so far have not noticed a shortage. "Right now we're ok, but we're keeping an eye on it," Gomez said.

Over the past few weeks, Borman watched with concern as Utah's donations declined.

"Utah has been one of our best depots — that's why we put out the call to action," she said.

Jerald King, a neonatologist at the University of Utah, said the shortage could also be due to increased demand for mothers' milk.

Earlier this year, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a new policy statement on breast-feeding, touting both the short- and long-term medical and neurodevelopmental advantages of human milk.

While breast-feeding and formula were viewed as equal choices in the past, King said the academy now recommends that babies breast-feed for their first six months of life.

"It isn't a lifestyle choice," King said. "It's a health issue."

For premature babies in intensive care, the risk of complications can be life-threatening. And quite often, their birth mothers are unable to breast-feed.

"So it's definitely in the baby's best interest to receive human milk," King said, noting that many NICUs are moving in that direction.

Pasteurized human milk is available by prescription and costs about $3.50 per ounce. While expensive, its use can reduce health care costs in the long run, King believes.

"If everyone followed the academy's recommendation and breast-fed for the first six months, the (national) health savings would exceed $13 billion," King said.

For earlier Tribune stories on the milk depot:

For-profit company wants Utah moms' breast milk —

How to help

Lactating mothers who wish to donate to the Mothers' Milk Bank Depot can call 877-458-5503 to begin the screening process. Learn more online. > —

What is Mother's Milk Bank?

Breast milk donations made in Utah are sent to the Mother's Milk Bank in Denver, a program of the Rocky Mountain Children's Health Foundation.

The Denver bank is one of 12 human milk banks in North America. In 2011, it provided more milk to hospitals than any other bank. The milk is sent to more than 80 hospitals in 24 states, for babies who have allergies to formula, certain illnesses or need human milk to thrive.

The 13 donation depots that send milk to Denver are in Salt Lake City, seven Colorado cities — Boulder, Littleton, Greeley, Colorado Springs, Fort Collins, Parker, Lonetree — in Newberg and Portland in Oregon; in Kansas City and Marshall in Missouri; and Anchorage, Alaska.

Source: University of Utah Health Care