Australian Red Cross Lifeblood delivers one of the world’s safest supplies of life-giving blood, plasma, transplantation and biological products for world-leading health outcomes. Lifeblood is now transforming lives in many different ways — from tissue typing services to organ matching for transplants to donated breast milk.
Lifeblood operates a national network of 96 blood donor centres. Four major blood processing facilities transform the gifts of generous donors into safe, high quality biological products for Australian patients.
Thousands of babies are born early every year in Australia. Of these, around 15 percent will be extremely premature or underweight. For these vulnerable babies, breast milk is the preferred feeding choice to help reduce the risk of health challenges related to their early births, including life-threatening necrotising enterocolitis.
Having made innovation an integral part of its culture, and with a commitment to making an even greater contribution to the Australian healthcare sector, Lifeblood saw an opportunity to expand beyond blood to benefit Australia’s tiniest patients. So in 2018 it founded a human milk bank to supply pasteurised donated breast milk to premature babies in neonatal intensive care units, initially in South Australia and New South Wales, and then one year later in Queensland.
This was a new direction for Lifeblood, but as a national not-for-profit health service provider with a 90-year history of safely collecting, testing, processing and distributing blood products, it was able to leverage its infrastructure, research and expertise to deliver pasteurised donor milk to hospitals that had not previously had a safe and reliable supply.
With the opening of this innovative milk bank, access to a reliable source of donated breast milk increased from 25 percent of premature babies born in Australia to approximately 60 percent. However, Australia still did not have nationwide coverage.
Lifeblood, therefore, began an ambitious project to expand its footprint and ensure 100 percent of Australia’s extremely premature and underweight babies have access to donated breast milk when they need it most.
Lifeblood received a $2 million grant from the Australian Government in July 2020 to build a new facility at its Brisbane Processing Centre, in collaboration with the Queensland Milk Bank, and to upgrade the facility at Sydney Processing Centre, with the goal of expanding its recently established milk bank to achieve national coverage.
The new facility is now operational, having overcome challenges such as supply chain constraints and multiple COVID lockdowns. With the opening of the new Brisbane hub for collecting, processing and distributing donated breastmilk, Lifeblood has substantially increased its capacity and expanded supply from 11 to 30 hospitals across New South Wales, South Australia, Queensland and Tasmania. Neonatal intensive care units now order pasteurised donated breast milk on demand, in the same way that blood is ordered.
In 2020 Lifeblood Milk welcomed over 300 breast milk donors, and distributed over 3,500 litres of donated breast milk. Some of the most vulnerable premature babies born in 2020 had access to the best possible nutrition, thanks to breast milk donated by Australian mothers and collected, processed and provided by Lifeblood Milk.
Since launching, Lifeblood Milk has provided donated breast milk to 2,500 premature babies. Australia’s demand is currently estimated to be 7,600 litres a year. Following the major expansion of its facilities, Lifeblood has significantly increased supply to meet this need. The new capacity coming on line in the next 12 months, plus the establishment of distribution hubs across the nation, will mean that Australia’s milk bank network will be able to support all vulnerable babies in need.