OTTAWA - Canadians should avoid obtaining human breast milk for their babies through the Internet or directly from other individuals because of possible health risks, Health Canada said Thursday in a release.

A big concern is that the milk may not have been processed and the medical history of the source of the breast milk may be unknown. The milk could also be contaminated with viruses such as HIV or bacteria that can cause food poisoning, such as Staphylococcus aureus.

There could be other problems with the milk. Traces of prescription or non-prescription drugs can be transmitted through human milk or it may not have been stored or handled properly, resulting in spoilage which, in turn, could cause illness.

Health Canada advises that breastfeeding is the best method of feeding infants for optimal growth, nutrition and immunological and emotional benefits and it's recognized internationally as the best method of feeding infants.

The Canadian Paediatric Society does not endorse the sharing of unprocessed human milk. But in a statement earlier this month, the society called for milk banks across the country because the supply of donor breast milk is limited.

The statement recommends strict controls on how and when human donor milk should be used.

"The most vulnerable babies should receive human milk," Dr. Sharon Unger, principal author of the statement and member of the CPS Nutrition and Gastroenterology Committee, said in a release.

"Only about half of the mothers of these babies will have an adequate milk supply, sometimes because they are sick themselves, or due to the stress of having a very sick baby or from being separated from their baby."

The only human milk bank in Canada, based in Vancouver, can't meet the needs of all babies who could benefit, the society said.

Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto offers supplemental breast milk to premature babies of mothers donated to the Ohio Milk Bank in Columbus. The hospital used to buy milk from the Vancouver bank, but that bank couldn't meet its needs so it switched to Ohio, the Toronto Star reported Thursday.

Health Canada recommends that Canadians consult their health-care professional with questions about breastfeeding or if they are considering purchasing human milk or acquiring it through the Internet or directly from individuals.