Many mothers who want to feed their babies on breast milk but for whatever reason can't breast-feed are turning to breast milk being sold on the Internet, but that may not be such a good idea, experts say.

Although buying, selling and trading of breast milk on the Web has become a burgeoning business, experts say it's a dangerous option and are urging women to avoid such activity.

Some women who are unable to breast-feed consider it a healthier alternative to formula, and online breast milk is often cheaper than what's available at regulated milk banks, which pasteurize their milk and also screen for diseases such as HIV and hepatitis B and C that can be passed through breast milk. But the online activity is almost completely unregulated and could put young children at risk, researchers from the University of London's school of medicine and dentistry say in an editorial in The British Medical Journal.

In one study, more than 90 percent of breast milk bought online was determined to harbor bacterial growth, raising the possibility of babies dying from such unscreened milk, says researcher Dr. Sarah Steele. It also is sometimes diluted with water, cow's milk or soy milk to increase its volume.

In addition to mothers unable to breastfeed who buy it for their infants, consumers of breast milk - sold online for as much as $4 a fluid ounce - include cancer patients convinced it offers health benefits and bodybuilders who consider it a "natural superfood."

But the biggest concern is for the mothers, Steele says, noting that the research revealed 75 percent of mothers are likely to search online when they encounter difficulties with infant feeding.

"They resort to the Internet to find out the information, usually because they're embarrassed, or because they feel like they're failing their infant, or because they're exhausted," she says.

Because even health care professionals aren't completely aware of how dangerous contaminated breast milk sold online can be, Steele and her study co-authors are calling for more regulation of the industry. "At present milk bought online is a far from ideal alternative, exposing infants and other consumers to microbiological and chemical agents. Urgent action is required to make this market safer."

Steele says that although the study she and her colleagues are involved in is not yet complete, they felt the danger was significant enough to speak out about it now.

"[The initial finding] was so damning that we felt we had to approach the BMJ and say: 'This needs to get out there now,' she said.

"We don't want to be writing the report after there has been an infant death in Britain," she says.

Health care workers should be trained on how to guide women to safe sources of breast milk, the researchers say.

"We observed that mothers are often in a desperate state and are nervous about talking to health care professionals about their difficulties feeding," Steele says. "The big danger is that more women turn online and that threatens the health of their infants."

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