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Dr. Victoria Martin: Change Must Come to the Hypoallergenic Market

carter | May 20, 2022 | 10:28 pm

The formula shortage crisis has made it clear that change must come to the hypoallergenic infant formula market. Two of the three formulas recalled in February were hypoallergenic, placing enormous strain on families that depend on these specialty formulas. The few remaining hypoallergenic options have not been able to keep up with the increased demand, leaving families in a panic to find solutions to feed their babies. We sat down with Dr. Victoria Martin, MD, MPH of Massachusetts General Hospital to get an inside look at how these families have been impacted by the shortage.  

According to Dr. Martin, a hypoallergenic, breast milk protein-based infant formula like Harmony could help this situation in two ways. First, it would be another option that families would have to feed their babies. The more options we have, the less vulnerable we are to shocking events like we are seeing now. Second, Dr. Martin’s studies have shown that babies fed exclusively cow’s milk formula have a higher chance of developing cow’s milk allergy than those fed breast milk. If babies were fed a breast milk-based formula rather than cow’s milk, there would be fewer babies who develop cow’s milk allergy, meaning less babies will need hypoallergenic formula overall, further easing the strain. 

Dr. Martin tells us that the formula shortage crisis has made it clear that change must come to the hypoallergenic infant formula market. It has shown us a few things. We have seen how dependent parents are on sticking with a single formula brand once they find one that works for their baby. We have also seen how reliant the supply chain is on just a few manufacturing plants. These are not good practices for families or for the formula industry. What happens if something prevents you from getting the formula you have depended on? What happens if a single manufacturing plant shuts down? We are seeing the answers to those questions unfold right now, and they are not positive. We must embrace new technologies to create better hypoallergenic options that parents will be confident to feed to their child. 

Dr. Martin is the Co-Director of the Massachusetts General Hospital’s GI Section of the Pediatric Food Allergy Center and is on the front lines helping allergic babies and their parents navigate this crisis. She has seen firsthand how incredibly serious this issue is for families with allergic babies. The specialty formulas that these families depend on are often out of stock and for them, switching formulas is no easy task. Allergic babies often have very sensitive stomachs and have trouble tolerating many of the formulas out there. They require advice from a pediatrician or subspecialist on which formula to switch to, and even then, by the time they find a formula that works for their baby, it runs out of stock, sending them back into a panic trying to find another formula. Even major pediatric medical centers are out of samples to provide. 

The crisis has hit lower income families the worst by far. While some parents are choosing to buy formula for exorbitant prices online when they can find it, others cannot afford to pay for new formulas. Support from insurance companies and medical supply companies is very challenging because of the constant need to switch formulas and prescriptions based on stock availability. 

Sadly, there is no solution right now that can fix everything immediately for all the families in need. The crisis has gotten so bad that doctors have started to prepare backup strategies in case the shortage continues to get worse. These strategies include a variety of suboptimal options, such as taking a step back from hypoallergenic formula in hopes that the baby has outgrown its allergy or creating specialized recipes using different formula products. Luckily, we have not yet resorted to new recipes, but this may become necessary if the supplies don’t improve soon. Importantly, parents should never create new recipes or dilute their formula without careful guidance from their pediatrician. Infants have been hospitalized for the dangerous results of this without proper medical supervision. If you are having trouble finding the formula you need, reach out to your child’s pediatrician for help. 

Dr. Victoria Martin, MD, MPH is the Co-Director of the Massachusetts General Hospital’s GI Section of the Pediatric Food Allergy Center and is an instructor in pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, as well as one of Harmony’s medical advisors.