May 13, 2014 |

Sophy Mabasa: a passionate advocate for the power of breast milk

Four adults and a toddler girl smile next to a decorated birthday cake.
Sophy Mabasa’s training in children’s nutrition took on new meaning for her when she had a family of her own. Photo: Sophy Mabasa

There is school learning, and then there is learning from life. For PATH’s Sophy Mabasa, her degree in clinical nutrition came alive when she had her son, Rifumo.

“I used what I learned—getting regular antenatal care, exclusively breastfeeding Rifumo for six months, immunization—and it worked,” she says. “He was so healthy. It was amazing to see theory in practice.”

The steps Sophy took can be lifesaving, yet, as she knows too well, mothers and babies in South Africa, where she lives and works, miss out on them every day.

Dreaming big

“I grew up in Limpopo, which is one of the poorest provinces in South Africa,” says Sophy. “I was fortunate. I attended some of the best schools in the province, which helped me to dream big—to graduate from university and pursue a career that makes a difference in people’s lives.”

Sophy graduated as the top student in her program just after Nelson Mandela became president. The post-apartheid government was introducing new health programs for millions of underserved people. Sophy became an assistant director in nutrition for South Africa’s National Department of Health, an experience that deepened her commitment to advocating for breastfeeding.

“When I see children dying of malnutrition or HIV and I know that an intervention like breastfeeding can increase their chances of survival,” she says, “it really pushes me to do more.”

Sophy speaking to breakfast audience.
Sophy spoke at PATH’s Breakfast For Global Health event, telling an audience of PATH supporters in Bellevue, Washington, about her work as a specialist in maternal and child nutrition in South Africa. Photo: PATH.

Stop the transmission

South Africa has some of the highest rates of infant and maternal deaths in the world. HIV plays a big role—in some areas, one-third of pregnant women are HIV-positive. More than half of children who die have been exposed to HIV.

“Most South Africans, including myself, know someone who has lost a baby,” says Sophy. “Many know a woman who died in childbirth. Yet almost all of these deaths are preventable.”

Through her work at PATH, Sophy encourages women to practice what she did with Rifumo: exclusively breastfeed for six months to give infants the nutrients and immune support found only in breast milk. “Even if the mother is HIV-positive,” she explains, “breastfeeding actually reduces the risk of HIV transmission.”

Sophy is also helping to guide the implementation of human milk banks, which collect donor breast milk for vulnerable babies who otherwise wouldn’t have access to it.

Best for babies

There’s a story that Sophy shares that exemplifies the challenges she sees in South Africa and the potential. It’s the story of a baby named Sipho, whose mother was HIV-positive.

“Like many women in South Africa, Sipho’s mom didn’t attend the clinic regularly when she was pregnant. She had anemia, which wasn’t diagnosed until too late. As a result, she bled too much when she was giving birth to Sipho, and she died.

“Sipho was not only an orphan, he was premature, and he had been exposed to HIV. He desperately needed breast milk.”

Fortunately for Sipho, he was in a hospital with a human milk bank. But very few hospitals in South Africa can afford the high-tech pasteurizers that ensure donated milk is free of HIV and other pathogens.

Affordable and safe

Inspired by survivors like Sipho, PATH collaborated with the University of Washington and the Human Milk Banking Association of South Africa to develop an innovative, low-cost pasteurization monitoring system that uses a mobile phone application.

The app guides health workers through the process of heating donated milk over a burner and monitors the temperature to make sure the milk is heated just right—so no bacteria or viruses are left and no nutrients are destroyed. The system, called FoneAstra, was launched in four hospitals in South Africa and will soon be expanded to more.

“Sipho is HIV-free and doing well. He just started grade 1,” says Sophy. “He has been given the chance to achieve his potential and that is what we want for all of South Africa’s children.”

A prototype of the FoneAstra device for monitoring the temperature of breast milk using a smartphone. Photo: PATH/Steffanie Chritz.

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