QUEBEC - The Quebec government announced Wednesday it is taking steps to address a "crying need" by setting up its first breast-milk bank.

While there are other breast-milk banks in the world, Quebec says its would be unique because it would be run by a public agency that already exists — Hema-Quebec, the provincial blood services agency.

If a bill tabled in the legislature Wednesday is passed, about 260 donors would be sought to provide milk to premature babies whose mothers produce little or no breast milk.

Canada already has two private breast milk banks —the B.C. Women's Hospital and Health Centre in Vancouver and the Calgary Mothers' Milk Bank. A third, the Rogers Hixon Ontario Human Milk Bank in Toronto, is currently screening donors and is expected to be up and running shortly.

About 1,000 premature babies are born annually in Quebec and the risk of complications increases when they don't get milk from their mothers.

"There is a crying need," said Dr. Jean De Serres, the president of Hema-Quebec.

Consumption of breast milk by babies of 32 weeks and less reduces the risk of infection and allergies as well as helping blood pressure and bone density, said Health Minister Rejean Hebert, who sponsored the bill.

It can also stave off necrotizing enterocolitis, in which portions of the tissue in an infant's bowel die.

Between three and 10 premature babies die in Quebec each year from complications, De Serres said.

Under the plan, women recruited by Hema-Quebec would pump the milk at home and then freeze it, the agency president explained. It would then be collected by Hema-Quebec employees.

Distribution through the Hema-Quebec network provides a high level of security, De Serres pointed out.

"This is a first in that we will be able to ensure quality in the same way we ensure the quality of blood products," he added. "It doesn't exist elsewhere."

As an organic product, breast milk does carry the risk of transmitting infectious diseases such as HIV and hepatitis B, De Serre said.

Harvesting takes this into consideration and the milk has to be pasteurized and tested.

The Quebec agency will recruit its first donors from among those who have agreed to provide umbilical cord blood because they have already been tested. That will reduce duplication and speed up the process.

Hebert said it will cost about $900,000 to develop the agency's infrastructure, an investment he said would save between $1 million and $1.5 million in costs for various treatments.

Hema-Quebec will start supplying hospitals shortly after the bill is passed.

"This project is a priority for me," Hebert said.

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