News & Current Affairs

July 20, 2009

Alarming Africa male gay HIV rate

Alarming Africa male gay HIV rate

HIV

The reports said more education was needed to combat HIV among gay men

HIV rates among gay men in some African countries are 10 times higher than among the general male population, says research in medical journal the Lancet.

The report said prejudice towards gay people was leading to isolation and harassment, which in turn led to risky sexual practices among gay communities.

But the risks are not limited to gay men, as many of the infected also have female sexual partners.

The report called for greater education and resources in the fight against HIV.

The Oxford University researchers found that the prevalence of HIV/Aids among gay men in sub-Saharan African has been “driven by cultural, religious and political unwillingness to accept [gay men] as equal members of society”.

Lead researcher Adrian Smith told the EXPRESS there was “profound stigma and social hostility at every level of society concerning either same-sex behaviours amongst men, or homosexuality”.

“This has the consequence that this group becomes extremely hard to reach,” he said.

Mr Smith said that gay male sex had always been acknowledged as being particularly dangerous in terms of contracting HIV/Aids.

But gay men were also more likely to be involved in other high-risk behaviours, including sex work, having multiple partners and being in contact with intravenous drug use, he said.

Education crucial

George Kanuma, a gay rights activist in Burundi, told the EXPRESS many men “hide their sexual orientation” to get married and have children, but continue to have sex with men.

“Most of them know that you can contract HIV/Aids or any infection when you are making sex with women, but not when you are having sex with another man,” he said.

Mr Smith said there was “a desperate need for delivering a basic package of prevention for HIV”, including ensuring supplies of condoms.

“There is also a need to sensitise, educate and train those involved in HIV, the interface with men who have sex with men, to educate those involved in care and prevention activities,” he said.

The United Nations Aids agency estimates that 33 million people in the world have HIV, of whom two-thirds live in sub-Saharan Africa.

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Iran bails UK embassy employee

Iran bails UK embassy employee

Protesters in Tehran, Iran, on 17 July 2009

The election sparked weeks of protests by critics of President Ahmadinejad

Iran has released on bail the last of the British embassy employees arrested in Tehran in connection with last month’s election protests.

Hossein Rassam – the embassy’s chief political analyst – was one of nine local embassy staff originally held.

He was charged with inciting the unrest over President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s re-election and is due to stand trial.

Britain has denied Tehran’s accusations that embassy staff had been involved in instigating mass demonstrations.

Abdolsamad Khorramshahi, a lawyer for the released employee, said he had left Tehran’s Evin prison, and that bail had been set at about $100,000 (£61,000).

British Foreign Secretary David Miliband welcomed Mr Rassam’s release, adding: “The detention of Embassy staff was completely unjustified.”

Protest ban

Violent street protests broke out after President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was re-elected in the 12 June vote.

At least 20 people are thought to have died during weeks of clashes.

IRAN UNREST
12 June presidential election saw incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad re-elected with 63% of vote
Main challenger Mir Hossein Mousavi called for result to be annulled for electoral fraud
Street protests saw at least 17 people killed and foreign media restricted

All gatherings were banned and the protests have died down in recent weeks.

Iran has repeatedly accused foreign powers – especially Britain and the US – of stoking the demonstrations.

Opposition candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi says the vote was rigged in favour of Mr Ahmadinejad.

The president and Iran’s main election body, the Council of Guardians, have rejected the charge.

On Friday former President Ali Akbar Rafsanjani called for the release of jailed protesters.

Speaking at Tehran University, he also said many Iranians still doubted the election results, and that the media should be allowed to discuss the dispute openly.

“It is not necessary to pressure media. We should allow them to work freely within the law,” he said.

As Mr Rafsanjani spoke, thousands of opposition supporters rallied near the university – the first opposition demonstration for more than a week.

July 19, 2009

New images of Moon landing sites

Filed under: Latest — Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , — expressyoureself @ 5:25 pm

New images of Moon landing sites

Apollo 14 (Nasa)

Apollo 14: Science instruments (circled left) and the lunar module descent stage (circled right) are connected by a footprint trail

A US spacecraft has captured images of Apollo landing sites on the Moon, revealing hardware and a trail of footprints left on the lunar surface.

The release of the images coincides with the 40th anniversary of the first manned mission to land on the Moon.

The descent stages from the lunar modules which carried astronauts to and from the Moon can clearly be seen.

The image of the Apollo 14 landing site shows scientific instruments and an astronaut footpath in the lunar dust.

It is the first time hardware left on the Moon by the Apollo missions has been seen from lunar orbit.

The pictures were taken by Nasa’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) spacecraft, which launched on 18 June.

Buzz Aldrin in front of lunar module

The Apollo 11 mission touched down on the Moon on 20 July 1969

The spacecraft is carrying three cameras on board: one low-resolution wide-angle camera and two high-resolution narrow-angle cameras mounted side-by-side.

These are known collectively as the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera (LROC) instrument.

“The LROC team anxiously awaited each image,” said the instrument’s principal investigator Mark Robinson of Arizona State University.

“We were very interested in getting our first peek at the lunar module descent stages just for the thrill – and to see how well the cameras had come into focus. Indeed, the images are fantastic and so is the focus.”

Astronaut trail

The camera instrument was able to capture five of the six Apollo sites, with the remaining Apollo 12 site expected to be photographed in the coming weeks.

Future LROC images from these sites will have two to three times greater resolution.

Long shadows from a low sun angle make the locations of the lunar modules’ descent stages particularly evident.

Apollo 11 (Nasa)

A long shadow is cast by the Apollo 11 descent stage

The image of the Apollo 14 landing site had a particularly desirable lighting condition that revealed additional details.

The Apollo Lunar Surface Experiment Package, a set of scientific instruments placed by the astronauts at the landing site, is discernable, as are the faint trails between the module and instrument package left by the astronauts’ footprints.

The LRO satellite reached lunar orbit on 23 June and captured the Apollo sites between 11 and 15 July.

Though it had been expected that LRO would be able to resolve the remnants of the Apollo missions, these first images were taken before the spacecraft had reached its final mapping orbit.

“Not only do these images reveal the great accomplishments of Apollo, they also show us that lunar exploration continues,” said LRO project scientist Richard Vondrak of Nasa’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, US.

“They demonstrate how LRO will be used to identify the best destinations for the next journeys to the Moon.”

Although the pictures provide a reminder of past lunar exploration, LRO’s primary focus is on paving the way for the future.

Data returned by the mission will help Nasa identify safe landing sites for future explorers, locate potential resources, describe the Moon’s radiation environment and demonstrate new technologies.

July 12, 2009

Shah Rukh honoured to be Dr Khan

Shah Rukh honoured to be Dr Khan

Shah Rukh Khan at the degree ceremony in London, 10 July 2009

Maybe I can keep the robes… ‘I’ve sweated in them’

Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan can now call himself “doctor” after being honoured in the United Kingdom for his contribution to arts and culture.

Bedfordshire University conferred the doctorate upon him at a ceremony in London on Friday night.

Khan said he aimed to use the award to help educate underprivileged children.

The actor, who has starred in dozens of films, already has his own waxwork at Madame Tussaud’s and has previously been honoured in France and Malaysia.

‘Top’ award

Khan was able to joke about becoming a doctor after frequent surgery in the past few years, most recently on his shoulder five months ago.

“Interestingly my kids don’t understand this doctorate and believe I will be awarded a stethoscope,” he joked at the degree ceremony.

The star was awarded the doctorate at a top London hotel instead of on university premises north of London because of the summer break.

The university received his nomination from Routes 2 Roots, an NGO that works towards people-to-people contact across the subcontinent, especially India and Pakistan.

Accepting the honour, Khan said he had received numerous awards as an actor but being given an honorary doctorate was the top achievement.

The actor left one of Delhi’s top schools with the best student award – but never finished a masters degree.

So how did he feel about receiving the honour?

“I get the feeling that I should further the cause of those underprivileged children who don’t get the opportunity to educate themselves,” he said, quickly adding that he should perhaps begin with his own children who are “highly uneducated as of now”.

The 43-year-old also added he was most scared of mathematics as a child, and intended to make sure his children were good at the subject.

Khan also joked that he might get to keep his university robes: “I have sweated in them – [they] can’t be returned unless I dry clean them.”

The ceremony was also attended by the famously barefoot Indian painter MF Hussain and British film maker Gurinder Chadha.

Other Indian stars to have been given honorary doctorates in the UK include Amitabh Bachchan, Shilpa Shetty, Akshay Kumar and AR Rahman.

July 4, 2009

Self-help ‘makes you feel worse’

Filed under: Health and Fitness, Latest — Tags: , , , , , — expressyoureself @ 1:31 pm

Self-help ‘makes you feel worse’

Psychologist and patient

Self-help mantras are a common therapeutic technique

Bridget Jones is not alone in turning to self-help mantras to boost her spirits, but a study warns they may have the opposite effect.

Canadian researchers found those with low self-esteem actually felt worse after repeating positive statements about themselves.

They said phrases such as “I am a lovable person” only helped people with high self-esteem.

The study appears in the journal Psychological Science.

A UK psychologist said people based their feelings about themselves on real evidence from their lives.

The suggestion people should “help themselves” to feel better was first mooted by Victorian Samuel Smiles 150 years ago.

Repeating positive self-statements may benefit certain people, such as individuals with high self-esteem, but backfire for the very people who need them the most
Joanne Wood
University of Waterloo

His book, called simply “Self Help”, sold a quarter of a million copies and included guidance such as: “Heaven helps those who help themselves”.

Self-help is now a multi-billion pound global industry.

‘Contradictory thoughts’

The researchers, from the University of Waterloo and the University of New Brunswick, asked people with high and low self-esteem to say “I am a lovable person.”

They then measured the participants’ moods and their feelings about themselves.

In the low self-esteem group, those who repeated the mantra felt worse afterwards compared with others who did not.

However people with high self-esteem felt better after repeating the positive self-statement – but only slightly.

The psychologists then asked the study participants to list negative and positive thoughts about themselves.

They found that, paradoxically, those with low self-esteem were in a better mood when they were allowed to have negative thoughts than when they were asked to focus exclusively on affirmative thoughts.

Writing in the journal, the researchers suggest that, like overly positive praise, unreasonably positive self-statements, such as “I accept myself completely,” can provoke contradictory thoughts in individuals with low self-esteem.

Such negative thoughts can overwhelm the positive thoughts.

If people are instructed to focus exclusively on positive thoughts, negative thoughts might be especially discouraging.

Real life

The researchers, led by psychologist Joanne Wood, said: “Repeating positive self-statements may benefit certain people, such as individuals with high self-esteem, but backfire for the very people who need them the most.”

However, they say positive thinking can help when it is part of a broader programme of therapy.

Simon Delsthorpe, a psychologist with Bradford District Care Trust and spokesman for the British Psychological Society, said self-esteem was based on a range of real life factors, and that counselling to build confidence – rather than telling yourself things are better than they are – was the solution.

“These are things like, do you have close family relationships, a wide network of friends, employment and appearance.

“If you’re not close to your parents, don’t have many friends, are unemployed and are unhappy with your appearance, it might be hard to have high self-esteem.

“But if your experience is the reverse of that it would be much easier to say ‘I’m OK’ and believe that.”

July 2, 2009

Student maintenance cash frozen

Filed under: Business News, Latest, Reviews — Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , — expressyoureself @ 8:30 am

Student maintenance cash frozen

Graduation ceremony

The system of student finance is different around the UK

Student maintenance grants and loans in England will be frozen for the academic year 2010-2011, the government has announced.

However, loans to cover tuition fees will be raised in line with the increase in the fees themselves.

Tuition fees will increase by 2.04% from September 2010, higher education minister David Lammy said.

He insisted that “difficult decisions” had to be made in the current economic climate.

The full maintenance grant, payable to students whose family income does not exceed £25,000, will remain at £2,906.

Maintenance loans and thresholds will also remain at 2009/10 levels.

Grants available for trainee teachers will also be reduced to be brought into line with amounts available to other students, Mr Lammy said in a written ministerial statement.

He said: “In these difficult economic times, we are continuing to take difficult decisions in the interests of students, universities and taxpayers alike.

“We have therefore decided to maintain the current package of maintenance support for full-time students, reflecting the current low inflationary environment.”

Recession

The Russell Group of 20 leading universities said it was “vital” that income from tuition fees kept pace with inflation.

“The introduction of fees has managed to halt a long-term decline in funding per student but funding for higher education in Britain is still significantly lower than in most other OECD countries,” said its director general, Wendy Piatt.

“The system of student support in England remains one of the most generous – and expensive – in the world.”

But the National Union of Students President, Wes Streeting, said: “Students are already racking up thousands of pounds of debt, and in a recession every penny counts.

“It appears that the inflation rate is being applied where it suits universities, but not where it will improve student support.

“In the context of the current recession, these real terms cuts in student support will be felt in students’ pockets.”

And the General Secretary of the University and College Union, Sally Hunt, said ministers had “failed” to ensure higher education was not a victim of the recession.

Loans

Students in England can apply for a means-tested grant to cover living costs – the value of this depends on their family income.

They can make up any shortfall by applying for a maintenance loan.

In addition, a tuition fee loan to cover fees is paid by the government on behalf of every student directly to the institution they attend.

These are repayable after graduation once annual income reaches £15,000.

Students in Northern Ireland are charged the same fees as in England.

The situation in Scotland and Wales differs – both countries charge higher fees to students from elsewhere in the UK coming to study there.

In Scotland, home students do not pay any fees.

June 24, 2009

Right ear is ‘better for hearing’

Filed under: Health and Fitness, Latest, Reviews — Tags: , , , , , , , , , — expressyoureself @ 5:50 pm

Right ear is ‘better for hearing’

Ear

The left-side of the brain processes much of what is heard in the right ear

If you want to get someone to do something, ask them in their right ear, say scientists.

Italian researchers found people were better at processing information when requests were made on that side in three separate tests.

They believe this is because the left side of the brain, which is known to be better at processing requests, deals with information from the right ear.

The findings are reported online in the journal Naturwissenschaffen.

We can also see this tendency when people use the phone, most will naturally hold it to their right ear
Professor Sophie Scott, of University College London

In the first study, 286 clubbers were observed while they were talking with loud music in the background.

In total, 72% of interactions occurred on the right side of the listener.

In the second study, researchers approached 160 clubbers and mumbled an inaudible, meaningless utterance and waited for the subjects to turn their head and offer either their left or their right ear.

They then asked them for a cigarette.

Overall, 58% offered their right ear for listening and 42% their left.

In the third study, the researchers intentionally addressed 176 clubbers in either their right or their left ear when asking for a cigarette.

The researchers obtained significantly more cigarettes when they spoke to the clubbers’ right ear compared with their left.

Brain

In conclusion, the researchers said: “Talk into the right ear you send your words into a slightly more amenable part of the brain.

“These results seem to be consistent with the hypothesised specialisation of right and left hemispheres.”

Professor Sophie Scott, of the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at University College London, agreed.

“Most people process speech and language on the left-hand side of the brain and while it is not cut-and-dry a lot of what goes in our right ear will be dealt with by the left-side of the brain.

“The other side of the brain is more involved in things such as interpreting emotion and that is why we have these kind of findings.

“We can also see this tendency when people use the phone, most will naturally hold it to their right ear.”

June 20, 2009

The value of a hobby

The value of a hobby

Balloons

Exotic hobbies are not always necessary

Perhaps wowing interviewers with your array of hobbies is not all that important after all, muses Laurie Taylor in his weekly column.

“Tell me Janice, why do you want to study sociology?”

I’d already asked five other applicants for an undergraduate place at York the same question that morning so I wasn’t exactly hanging on the answer.

FIND OUT MORE
Laurie Taylor
Hear Laurie Taylor’s Thinking Allowed on Radio 4 at 1600 on Wednesdays or 0030 on Mondays

Just as well really. For although the sixth-former now occupying the interview chair in my office at least looked as though she recognised the question, she still delivered nothing more than the sort of stock reason which had no doubt been recommended by her school careers advisor.

“Well,” she said slowly, “I’ve always been interested in people.”

My fellow interviewer, a grumpy and overweight senior lecturer who’d never shown any interest whatsoever in any other person than himself, signalled his dissatisfaction with a grunt.

But I persisted. “So, Janice what exactly interests you about people?”

The candidate clearly hadn’t been trained to expect a follow-up question. She once more found herself distracted by the tips of her sensible interview shoes.

I tried to help out. “Are you interested in their differences? Or perhaps their similarities?”

Janice looked up with a sudden show of certainty. “Their differences,” she said. “Good,” I said with an encouraging smile. “And what sort of differences?”

I hoped against hope that she’d come up with some sort of answer so that my fellow interviewer would have to credit my line of questioning. But this was clearly a step too far. The silence began to stretch.

Janice looked for all the world as though she’d been suddenly asked to pontificate on the finer points of Kantian epistemology

“Differences in clothes?” I suggested helpfully. “Differences in style? Differences in class?” In court, they’d have called it leading the witness.

“All sorts of differences,” said Janice hopefully. My co-interviewer snorted again.

And even though it was the end of a long morning’s interviewing I was suddenly overcome by the feeling that I must somehow rescue this young woman from her extreme inarticulacy, somehow find a way in which she could, if not sparkle, at least emit a faint glow of comprehension or intelligence.

I quickly scanned her application form. Perhaps there was something here which would give the lie to her present inadequacy. But it was all purely routine.

A list of O-level successes and A-level aspirations and a reference from a headmaster which spoke of Janice as a “moderate to high achiever” who “had not always lived up to her potential but who was now gaining in maturity” and “could be expected to make the most of a university opportunity”. I suspected on the basis of these cliches that even I was already more familiar with Janice than her own headmaster.

Interview

Interviews can be harrowing experiences for many

I flipped over the page. Perhaps there’d be some meat for me to gnaw on in the “Hobbies” section. What did Janice get up to in her spare time? Yes, here it was. Hobbies. And there, in her neat rounded slightly backward sloping hand, Janice had written “Brass Rubbing”.

“Right,” I said, as though I’d been totally satisfied by her analysis of social differences, “let’s move on. I see that your hobby is brass rubbing. What interests you about brass rubbing?”

Janice looked for all the world as though she’d been suddenly asked to pontificate on the finer points of Kantian epistemology. Her face, which had never shown much more than a flicker level of animation throughout the interview, now assumed a total blankness.

I checked the form again. Had I misread her hobby? No, it was as plain as a pike-staff. I tried again. “Where do you do your brass rubbing?”

Bitter confession

Janice shuffled. Was she deciding between a range of cathedral tombs? Not at all. She looked up and I could see tears forming in her eyes.

“I don’t do it anywhere,” she said sadly. And then, almost as though she knew that matters could not get any worse, she poured out her bitter confession.

“I don’t even know what it is. I don’t know what brass rubbing is. But when we were filling in the UCCA form, our teacher said that we all had to have a hobby but when she asked the other girls in the class what their hobbies were no-one, except someone who did cooking at home, had a hobby.

“So the teacher had this list of hobbies like watching birds and collecting stamps and brass rubbing and she gave us one hobby each and I got brass rubbing.”

“So you don’t have a hobby of your own?” I asked gently. Janice was now in her stride. “No. I’ve never had a hobby. My mum and dad always told me I should have a hobby. But I never wanted a hobby. I had too many other things to do to bother with a hobby. You had to do hobbies by yourself. I didn’t want to do that.”

“Why?” I almost whispered. “Because,” Janice was now leaning forward, and even my grumpy co-interviewer was paying attention, “because, because, like I told you. Because I’m interested in people.”

I’m pleased to say Janice now lectures in sociology at a North East university.


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September 19, 2008

‘Ibuprofen best’ for child fevers

‘Ibuprofen best’ for child fevers

Baby with father

Most symptoms of a fever in young children can be managed at home

Ibuprofen is better at alleviating childhood fever than paracetamol and should be the drug of first choice, say UK researchers.

The Bristol-based trial involving 156 children aged between six months and six years showed ibuprofen reduced temperature faster than paracetamol.

The British Medical Journal work also says alternating the two drugs could help, which some GPs already recommend.

But experts advised against this, in line with official guidance.

The concern is the relative ease with which children could receive an overdose.

Fever is very common in young children, affecting seven in every 10 preschool children each year.

Parents wanting to use medicines to treat young, unwell children with fever should be advised to use ibuprofen first
Lead researcher Dr Alastair Hay

It can be miserable for the child and cause anxiety for parents. Most fevers will settle by themselves but a few are caused by serious infections such as pneumonia.

Guidelines published last year by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) say either ibuprofen or paracetamol can be used for children unwell or distressed with fever.

But they say that, due to the lack of evidence, the two drugs should not be given together or alternated.

The researchers from the University of Bristol and the University of the West of England, recruited children who had a temperature between 37.8 and 41 degrees centigrade, due to an illness that could be managed at home.

Alternating drugs

Children were randomised to receive either paracetamol plus ibuprofen, just paracetamol, or just ibuprofen.

The medicines were given over a 48-hour period, with the group of children on both paracetamol and ibuprofen receiving them as separate doses.

This group received one dose of paracetamol every four to six hours (maximum of four doses in 24 hours) and then one dose of ibuprofen every six to eight hours (maximum of three doses in 24 hours).

Childhood fever
A normal temperature is between 36-36.8C (96.8-98.24F)
In children, any temperature of 38C (100.4F) or above is considered high and is called a fever
To find out if your child has a fever, place a thermometer under your child’s armpit or use a special ear thermometer

The children’s condition was followed up at 24 hours, 48 hours and at day five.

The researchers found that in the first four hours children given both medicines spent 55 minutes less time with fever compared to those given paracetamol alone.

But giving two medicines was not markedly better than just giving ibuprofen.

However, over a 24 hour period, children given both medicines experienced 4.4 hours less time with fever than those given just paracetamol, and 2.5 hours less time with fever than those just given ibuprofen.

Safety issues

Dr Alastair Hay, consultant senior lecturer in primary health care at the University of Bristol, who led the study, said: “Doctors, nurses, pharmacists and parents wanting to use medicines to treat young, unwell children with fever should be advised to use ibuprofen first.

“If more sustained symptom control over a 24-hour period is wanted, giving both medicines alternately is better than giving one on its own.

“However, parents should keep a careful record of when doses are given to avoid accidentally giving too much.”

We believe parents should keep it simple. We do not see at this moment any need to change the advice
Professor Steve Fields, chairman of the Royal College of General Practitioners

He said he thought it would be appropriate for NICE to review its guidance in light of the new study, saying the current guidance was too cautious.

In an accompanying editorial in the BMJ, Dr Anthony Harnden from the University of Oxford, warned of the relative ease with which children could receive an overdose.

He said that a “more complicated alternating regimen of paracetamol and ibuprofen may be less safe than using either drug alone”.

A spokeswoman for NICE said the 2007 guidance recommended that more research should be conducted on the effectiveness and safety of alternating doses of paracetamol and ibuprofen in reducing fever in children who remain febrile after the first fever-reducing medicine.

She said: “Any newly published research will need to be thoroughly assessed by independent experts as part of the process of updating clinical guidelines.

“This is essential to ensure that any new evidence is of the highest standards before any potential updates can be made to existing guidance.”

Professor Steve Fields, chairman of the Royal College of General Practitioners, advised parents and carers of children with fever to follow the NICE guidance.

“We believe parents should keep it simple. We do not see at this moment any need to change the advice.

“However, this paper does demonstrate that using ibuprofen initially is more effective at reducing temperature and may demonstrate that using both ibuprofen and paracetamol together could have a positive effect.”

Why Kenyan women crave stones

Why Kenyan women crave stones

Stones on sale in Kenya market

Nancy Akoth is four months pregnant and like many women in her state has strange cravings.

Some women eat coal, gherkins or soap but Mrs Akoth craves soft stones, known in Kenya, where she lives, as “odowa”.

“I just have this urge to eat these stones. I do very crazy things, I would even wake up at night and go looking for them,” she told.

“I consulted my doctor and all he told me is that maybe I’m lacking iron and gave me medication on iron, but I still have the urge to eat those stones.”

Luckily for Mrs Akoth, she is not alone in craving stones and they are easily found on sale in Nairobi’s sprawling Gikomba market.

It can actually cause things like kidney damage and liver damage, if you don’t take enough fluid
Alice Ndong, nutritionist

Among the fish-mongers and dealers in second-hand goods who flock to the market are traders who specialise in odowa.

Stone-seller Stephen Ndirangu unsurprisingly says women are his main customers.

“Most of them buy the stones to go and sell them to women who are pregnant,” Mr Ndirangu says.

He says he sells one 90kg sack for about $6.

‘Pleasant taste’

Although they are stones, they are too soft to break the teeth of Mrs Akoth and her fellow cravers.

Nutritionist Alice Ndong says the stones have a bland taste.

“It’s a pleasant taste. It doesn’t have a tangy flavor or a salty or a sugary flavor. It’s a bit like eating flour,” she told.

I cannot do without it
Sylvia Moi

She says that because of their abrasive nature, the stones actually clean the teeth as the stone is chewed and the finer particles pass through the mouth.

However, she warns this should not be used as an excuse to eat the stones as the habit can also have harmful consequences.

“If somebody eats those stones and they don’t take enough water, then they will actually get severe constipation… It can actually be very dangerous,” she says.

“It can actually cause things like kidney damage and liver damage, if you don’t take enough fluid because it will form a mass that cannot be excreted.”

“When you eat these stones, it’s like eating metal. The particles – because it’s not food – are not digested as finely as fruits or vegetables,” she says.

‘Irresistible’

The phenomenon of craving non-food items like soil or soft stones is referred to as pica, a Latin word for magpie, the bird notorious for eating almost anything.

Researchers from the University of Nigeria interviewed 1,071 pregnant women attending a prenatal clinic at the Pumwani Maternity Hospital in Nairobi.

At least 800 of those interviewed said they ate soil, stones and other non-food items during their pregnancy.

But it is not only those who are pregnant who indulge in this habit.

Sylvia Moi still finds the soft stones irresistible, 14 years after she gave birth.

“I cannot do without it… Walking without it makes me feel bad, as if I’m lacking something [or] I’m hungry,” Mrs Moi says.

She says she would like to quit the habit but just cannot stop herself.

“When you eat it you look awkward, people think: ‘What is it that you lack in you that makes you eat that awkward stone,'” she says.

Infection

Experts say that the craving to eat odowa is largely due to a deficiency of vital minerals, like calcium, in the body.

“Unfortunately, these stones don’t offer a lot of calcium. They offer some other forms of minerals like magnesium but not much calcium,” says Mrs Ndong.

Research shows that these habits have negative side-effects on the women’s health, ranging from parasitic infestations, anaemia and intestinal complications

“The problem with these stones is sometimes they’re not hygienic. I remember up-country I’ve seen people just go somewhere, dig up and maybe people urinate in that spot,” she says.

Experts warn pregnant women and others who enjoy eating odowa to try to ignore these cravings for the sake of their health.

The researchers say that the women are better off eating a balanced diet, than remaining hooked to the myth that their changing bodies need soft stones and soil.

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