SAN BENITO — Cameron County opened its first Mother’s Milk Depot site yesterday.

Mothers in the Valley with excess breast milk can now begin the donation process to help premature babies receive milk they would otherwise have to go without.

Dr. Manuel Mendoza, a neonatologist who specializes in the care of premature newborns, said preterm infants are at risk of developing necrotizing enterocolitis or NEC, a disease that attacks the intestinal tract.

Breast milk may be the key to preventing this disease.

In a study, more than 10 percent of preterm infants fed formula acquired NEC.

That number dropped to 1.5 percent for infants fed human milk.

“Breast milk is very protective against NEC,” Mendoza said.

“What we have seen in research is that breast milk is what helps us with these drastic diseases that these babies go up against.”

Mendoza said milk banks have become lifesavers for premature babies, especially here in the Valley.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, in 2016, 10 percent of babies born in the United States were born prematurely.

That number jumped to 11.3 percent for babies born in Cameron County.

“There is a really high need for breast milk here in the Valley,” WIC director Melissa Garza said.

“There are a lot of moms that are not able to produce milk or for whatever reason they can’t give them their milk. It’ll be saving lives.”

The milk depot works in connection with the milk bank in Austin.

How does it all work?

Milk donated to the Cameron County Milk Depot is stored in a temperature-controlled freezer that is monitored daily before being shipped to Austin.

Once in Austin, the milk is tested, screened and processed before being sent to hospitals for use.

The Mothers’ Milk Bank in Austin services several states including Texas, Louisiana and Tennessee with milk depots as far as Washington, D.C.

Kelsey Heinman is the community manager in the Austin milk bank.

Heinman said the donated milk undergoes an extreme vetting process before being shipped out to hospitals.

How to give

Moms are asked to disclose any medication that would normally be fine for babies taking breast milk.

Simple medicine such as Tylenol for a cold, puts the mother on a deferment keeping her from donating until 72 hours after her last dose.

“What is perfectly safe for healthy mom and a healthy baby might not be perfectly safe for a one pound baby who has liver and an intestinal and heart issues,” Heinman said.

Mothers wishing to donate must first contact the milk bank in Austin for basic screenings and milk testing before being able to drop off donations at the Cameron County site.

What is the difference between a milk bank and a milk depot?

A milk depot is a controlled collection point where women can donate their breast milk. A milk bank collects, screens, processes and dispenses by prescription human milk donated.

Four steps to donating milk

Call 512-579-3978 to complete a 10 to 15 minute phone screening

Complete and return the informational packet

Take a blood test that is paid for by the milk bank

Once the paperwork and lab results have been submitted, the director will call the donor with the approval status to begin donating milk