Melipilla (Chile) - When severe food allergies kept Fiorella Fuentes from stomaching her formula -- leaving the infant on the brink of starvation -- her desperate mother turned to a curious source of sustenance: donkey milk.
At a donkey farm near Santiago, Fiorella -- now three years old -- rides one of the animals with help from her mother Carolina, who today works in distributing the unusual milk that saved her daughter.
"It was a miracle," she says. "Fiorella -- who vomited 36 times a day with formulas -- did not vomit again after her first taste of donkey milk."
Carolina describes visiting one specialist after another looking for a solution to her daughter's severe food allergy, a fruitless effort until one doctor finally recommended donkey milk.
"The feeling of desperate mothers and fathers, of not knowing what to feed your child, is the worst in the world," she said. "When I found the solution to my daughter's diet, it was the best."
Carolina's experience got her thinking about how to help mothers unable to breastfeed. She now distributes about 40 liters (10 gallons) of donkey milk a day out of her house, a business that is starting to expand.
- 'An alternative' -
Some 20 years ago, Dr German Errazuriz took the advice of a patient's relatives in southern Chile who recommended treating a child with donkey's milk. From then on, he began prescribing the elixir to children intolerant to milk formulas.
"Donkey milk is an alternative," said the specialist and owner of the establishment in the town of Melipilla that produces the milk.
"In some patients, it is much better and more palatable. It looks like breast milk and is a milk, not a chemical that dissolves into cow's milk."
Other milk alternatives exist, such as goat milk. But experts say goat milk closely resembles breast milk, and is therefore more likely to trigger allergies.
Donkey milk has a composition similar to breast milk but contains less fat. To collect it, immature donkeys must be separated overnight from their mothers, who need down time in order to produce enough.
The mothers are milked by machines at dawn, then reunited with their offspring.
The product is pasteurized and frozen for distribution.
A donkey generally produces less than a liter of milk a day, whereas a cow can give up to 40 liters -- perhaps why humans turned to cows for dairy production rather than donkeys, Errazuriz said.
After the farm met health qualifications in 2016, Carolina Fuentes began using social networks to promote the product by recounting her own experience.
- Risky -
Some in the world of medicine resist prescribing donkey's milk as a solution to allergies, blaming the prevalence of food intolerances on lifestyle and increased diagnosis.
"Children who are allergic to cow's milk should not be advised to drink milk from other mammals, because there is a high cross-reactivity between cow's milk protein and that of other mammals," said Maria Angelica Marinovic, an allergies specialist at the Santa Maria clinic in Santiago.
Neither the World Health Organization nor US guidelines have identified donkey milk as an allergy treatment, said the specialist, who said she would not recommend it for that use.
"There is a risk that they will react to this type of milk," she said. "Maybe it could be given to older children, but not infants."
Few clinical studies on donkey milk exist, making it difficult to assess its health benefits.
In countries like Bolivia, donkey milk is used to fight respiratory diseases. Some also consider it a magical beauty ingredient, including it in anti-wrinkle creams.
The milk is also gaining popularity in Balkan countries, where some people pay a premium for it, hoping to tackle conditions including asthma, bronchitis and skin diseases.