Nanotech “teabag” purifies water


 Scientists have reversed the action of the humble herbal tea bag to purify water on a small scale. Instead of infusing water with flavour, a sachet sucks up toxic contamination when fitted into the neck of a water bottle.The researchers, at Stellenbosch University, South Africa, hope communities that have no water-cleaning facilities will use it to purify dirty water. The sachets are made from the same material used to produce the rooibos tea bags that are popular in South Africa. But inside are ultra-thin nanoscale fibres, which filter out contaminants, plus active carbon granules, which kill bacteria.

“What is new about this idea is the combination of inexpensive raw materials, namely activated carbon and antimicrobial nanofibres, in point-of-use water filter systems,” Marelize Botes, researcher in the university’s department of microbiology, told SciDev.Net.

A sachet can clean one litre of the most polluted water. Once used, it is thrown away and a new one is inserted into the bottle neck. Although the filter is still in development, tests on river samples around Stellenbosch have been successful, said Botes.

“The nanofibres will disintegrate in liquids after a few days and will have no environmental impact. The raw materials of the tea-bag filter are not toxic to humans,” she added. Each bag should cost around three South African cents (just under half a US cent). “Anybody can use it anywhere; it’s affordable, clean and environmentally friendly,” said Jo Burgess, manager of South Africa’s Water Research Commission.

The inventor, Eugene Cloete, dean of the faculty of science at Stellenbosch University and chair of Stellenbosch University’s Water Institute, which opened in June, said: “This is a decentralised, point-of-use technology”.

Shem Wandiga, managing trustee of the Centre for Science and Technology Innovations, in Kenya said: “A technology that supplies clean water at point of use is preferred to technologies that distribute water due to less recontamination. “However, given that the majority of people lacking clean water also have meagre incomes, most living on one dollar a day or less, the technology must be affordable or its cost covered by government. “The major acceptance of the technology by uneducated and untrained person is the proof of the pudding. Sophisticated users will not find difficulty adapting to the technology.

Clean water is still a huge challenge in Sub-Saharan Africa, where 300 million people have no access to clean water according to the World Bank.

The filter is expected to be on the market before the end of the year if approved by the South African Bureau of Standards, which is currently testing it, said Botes.


Estimated 2,000 UK girls to endure genital mutliation over summer holidays

Video opens with a scene of a mutilation:

Via The Guardian:

Like any 12-year-old, Jamelia was excited at the prospect of a plane journey and a long summer holiday in the sun. An avid reader, she had filled her suitcases with books and was reading Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban when her mother came for her. “She said, ‘You know it’s going to be today?’ I didn’t know exactly what it would entail but I knew something was going to be cut. I was made to believe it was genuinely part of our religion.”

She went on: “I came to the living room and there were loads of women. I later found out it was to hold me down, they bring lots of women to hold the girl down. I thought I was going to be brave so I didn’t really need that. I just lay down and I remember looking at the ceiling and staring at the fan.

“I don’t remember screaming, I remember the ridiculous amount of pain, I remember the blood everywhere, one of the maids, I actually saw her pick up the bit of flesh that they cut away ’cause she was mopping up the blood. There was blood everywhere.”

Some 500 to 2,000 British schoolgirls will be genitally mutilated over the summer holidays. Some will be taken abroad, others will be “cut” or circumcised and sewn closed here in the UK by women already living here or who are flown in and brought to “cutting parties” for a few girls at a time in a cost-saving exercise.

Then the girls will return to their schools and try to get on with their lives, scarred mentally and physically by female genital mutilation (FGM), a practice that serves as a social and cultural bonding exercise and, among those who are stitched up, to ensure that chastity can be proved to a future husband.

Even girls who suffer less extreme forms of FGM are unlikely to be promiscuous. One study among Egyptian women found 50% of women who had undergone FGM “endured” rather than enjoyed sex.

Cleanliness, neatness of appearance and the increased sexual pleasure for the man are all motivations for the practice. But the desire to conform to tradition is the most powerful motive. The rite of passage, condemned by many Islamic scholars, predates both the Koran and the Bible and possibly even Judaism, appearing in the 2nd century BC.

Although unable to give consent, many girls are compliant when they have the prodecure carried out, believing they will be outcasts if they are not cut. The mothers believe they are doing the best for their daughters. Few have any idea of the lifetime of hurt it can involve or the medical implications.

Jamelia, now 20, who says her whole personality changed afterwards.”I felt a lot older. It was odd because nobody says this is a secret, keep your mouth shut but that’s the message you get loud and clear.” She stopped the sports and swimming she used to love and became “strangely disconnected with her own body”. Other girls have died, of shock or blood loss; some have picked up infections from dirty tools. Jamelia’s mother paid extra for the woman to use a clean razor. It is thought that in the UK there are one or two doctors who can be bribed by the very rich to to carry out FGM using anaesthetic and sterilised instruments.

Comfort Momoh works at Guy’s and St Thomas’ Hospital in London, in one of the 16 clinics up and down the country who deal with FGM and its health repercusssions. Women who have had much of their external genitalia sliced off and their vaginas stitched closed, but for a tiny hole, also come to be cut open in order to give birth.

There are four types of female circumcision identified by the World Health Organisation, ranging from partial to total removal of the external female genitalia. Some 140 million women worldwide have been subjected to FGM and an estimated further two million are at risk every year. Most live in 28 African countries while others are in Yemen, Kurdistan, the US, Saudi Arabia, Australia and Canada.

The UK Prohibition of Female Circumcision Act 1985 makes it an offence to carry out FGM or to aid, abet or procure the service of another person. The Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003, makes it against the law for FGM to be performed anywhere in the world on UK permanent residents of any age and carries a maximum sentence of 14 years imprisonment. To date, no prosecutions have been made under UK legislation.

“Obviously in summer we get really anxious. All activists and professionals working around FGM get anxious because this is the time that families take their children back home. This is the time when all the professionals need to be really alert,” said Momoh.

“There is no hard evidence in figures about what is happening in the UK because it’s a hush-hush thing. It’s only now that a few people are beginning to talk about it, which is good because change will only come from within and the numbers coming forward are rising. But there is a lot of family pressure. When I first started in 1997 we had two clinics in the country, now we have 16.”

One woman told the Observer how a midwife examining her had raced retching and crying from the room. She had no idea she was “abnormal” before that happened. There is a clear need for women who have suffered FGM to be able to visit health professionals who understand what has happened to them. Momoh said that for those who wanted it, some surgical reversal work could sometimes be done on women with the most severe FGM procedure, Type III. For those with other types, counselling and support is all that can offered.

“Periods are agony – you get a lot of women who are determined to have reversals while they are having their period but then when the pain has stopped they lose their nerve again,” said Leyla Hussein, 29, who has had to have years of counselling to cope with her own anger and distress at what was done to her as a child. It has helped her forgive her own mother’s complicity in the mutilation she endured, though the older woman could not understand why Hussein would not have her own child, now aged seven, cut. But Hussein has vowed that she will be the last generation of women in her family to suffer.

“It was my husband who said on our honeymoon, ‘We are not going to do this thing to any child of ours.’ I was quite shocked, I hadn’t questioned it. But I now realise a lot of men are not in favour of FGM, not when you tell them the woman is not going to enjoy herself.”

Hussein is among a slowly but steadily growing band of women who have reacted against what happened to them with courage and a determination to stamp out FGM. Hussein has run support and discussion groups for affected women and for men, and formerly worked at the African Well Women’s Centre in Leyton, east London.

“I can really relate to some of the women who are very angry, but how do you blame your mother, who loves you yet planned this for you? There is a lot of anger and resentment. Many women blame themselves and of course there are flashbacks to deal with. I had blackouts – anytime I had to have a smear test, I would pass out because lying in that position brought it back to me, but the nurse is used to me now and allows a little more time with the appointment.”

“The new generation, born and raised here in Britain, they are used to expressing their views and it will be a lot harder to shut them up. Last month was the first ever march against FGM [in Bristol where 15 to 16 mothers protested] and that is a sign of something new.”

Asha-Kin Duale is a community partnership adviser in Camden, London. She talks to schools and to families about safeguarding children. “Culture has positive and negative issues for every immigrant community. We value some traditions, and most are largely good.

“FGM is not confined to African countries. It has no basis in Christianity, it has no basis in Islam; none of Muhammad’s daughters had it done. For some parents it is enough to let them know that and they will drop it completely. Everyone needs to understand that every child, no matter what the background or creed, is protected by this law in this land.”

She said there needed to be an understanding of why FGM took place, although that was not the same as accepting that the practice had a cultural justification.

“FGM has a social function and until this is understood by social services and other bodies they will never stop it. It is a power negotiation mechanism, that women use to ensure respect from men. It prevents rape of daughters and is a social tool to allow women to regain some power in patriarchal societies. With girls living in the UK there is no need to gain the power – it has to be understood that girls can be good girls without FGM.”

For Jason Morgan, a detective constable in the Met’s FGM unit, Project Azure, the solution lies with those girls themselves: “Empowering youth, giving them the information, is the way forward. They are coming from predominantly caring and loving families, who genuinely believe this is the right thing to do. Many are under a great deal of pressure from the extended families.

“Sometimes it might be as simple as delivering the message of what the legal position is; sometimes we even give them an official letter, a document that they can show to the extended family that states quite firmly what will happen if the procedure goes ahead. The focus has to be on prevention.”

Project Azure made 38 interventions in 2008, 59 in 2009 and 25 so far this year. For Morgan those statistics are just as important as getting a conviction. “We know it happens here although we have no official statistics, but we have seen very successful partnerships and we don’t want to alienate communities through heavy-handed tactics.

“While a prosecution would send out a very clear message to practising communities, really it is very difficult and you would be relying on medical evidence, and in turn that would all hinge or whether the child consents to an examination.”

But Naana Otoo-Oyortey is not so content with the softly-softly approach: “We have anecdotal evidence that it is being done here. So someone is not doing their job: it’s an indication that the government has been failing to protect children. The commitment is hollow.”

Head of the leading anti-FGM charity Forward UK, Otoo-Oyortey said people value the FGM tradition as something which holds a community together and gives it structure. “It’s seen as a party, a cutting party because it’s a celebration – people expect it as a way of welcoming a girl. A lot of women will mention to us that there have been no prosecutions here so why do we worry about the law? At the end of the day who will know?

“And we cannot just blame the women as the men are silently supporting it by paying for it. The new government’s lack of a position on FGM is very worrying. We don’t know what they will do, but we do know that the summer holidays are here again and we will be left to pick up the pieces in a few weeks’ time.”

And for those who will be “cut” this summer, the effects will be lifelong. Miriam was six when she had her cutting party at her home in Somalia, two years before war arrived to force her family out.

When she was 12, doctors were horrified to find that what they thought was a cyst in her body was actually several years of period blood that had been blocked from leaving her body. Unable to have children, she now lives and works in England and worries about other girls. “I’d seen so many people circumcised, all my neighbours, so I knew one day it was going to happen to me. We knew what was happening,” Miriam said.

“The little girls who were born in Europe have no clue. They will be traumatised a lot more. The only thing they know is that they are going away – that’s what they say, ‘We’re going on a holiday’.

“Then her life and her head are going to be messed up. It’s amazing how many people are in mental health care because of their culture. Don’t get me wrong, I have religion and culture and I love where I’m from and I love what I stand for. But culture should not be about torture.

“Why would anyone want to go and cut up a seven- or eight-year-old child? People need to wake up — you are hurting your child, you are hurting your daughter, you’re not going to have a grandchild, so wake up.”

The article is followed by a fact sheet:

■ Female genital mutilation, also known as cutting, is practised in 28 African countries. The prevalence rate ranges from 98% of girls in Somalia to 5% in Zaire. It also takes place among ethnic groups in the Middle East, India, Pakistan, Malaysia, Indonesia, Australia, Canada, the US and New Zealand.

■ Until the 1950s FGM was used in England and the US as a “treatment” for lesbianism, masturbation, hysteria, epilepsy and other “female deviances”.

■ A survey in Kenya found a fourfold drop in FGM rates among girls who had secondary education.

■ Reasons for the practice include conforming to social norms, enhancing sexual pleasure for men and reducing it for women, cleanliness and chastity.

■ No European country accepts the threat of FGM as a reason for asylum.

■ In Sudan, 20%-25% of female infertility has been linked to FGM complications.

■ In Chad, girls have begun to seek FGM without pressure from their immediate family, believing that to be “sewn up” proves they are virginal and clean. The fashion has led to uncircumcised girls being labelled “dirty”.

Gel curbs HIV infection

Via Science News:

A new vaginal gel is the first to show promise in preventing HIV infection among women, researchers report. If licensed, the gel could be an effective female-initiated means of HIV prevention, which is especially important in countries like Africa where condom use can be difficult for women to negotiate.

“Now we have a product that can potentially alter this and save millions of lives by preventing HIV infection and preventing death,” says infectious diseases epidemiologist Quarraisha Abdool Karim of Columbia University, who coauthored the study being published online July 19 by Science.

In sub-Saharan Africa, women and girls account for about 60 percent of HIV infections. Currently, these victims have no way to protect themselves against HIV if their male partners refuse to use condoms. Researchers have been working for over a decade to create a topical gel that women can use vaginally to prevent infection, but none has proven successful.

The new gel contains an anti-HIV drug called tenofovir. Tenofovir is already used in pill form because it helps slow HIV’s spread through a patient’s body. The secret to tenofovir’s success as a topical agent may be that it absorbs into the vaginal wall and into the cells targeted by HIV, says infectious-disease epidemiologist Salim Abdool Karim, another coauthor on the study. Other gels have had to be sufficiently spread around and present in the vagina during intercourse in order to work, he adds.

Researchers recruited 889 sexually active women between the ages of 18 and 40 in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. Half of the women were given the tenofovir gel, while the other half were given a placebo. They were instructed to apply the gel 12 hours before and up to 12 hours after intercourse. Both groups were told the drug was experimental and were counseled to also use condoms or another means of HIV prevention.

Compared with the placebo group, women in the tenofovir group showed 39 percent fewer HIV infections. Within the tenofovir group, women who used the gel more than 80 percent of the time had 54 percent fewer infections than women who used the placebo gel with similar diligence.

“It’s refreshing and good news,” says virologist Charlene Dezzutti of the University of Pittsburgh. “A 54 percent protection rate in people who have used the gel consistently is excellent. I don’t think any HIV prevention measures will ever be 100 percent effective. You’ll always have people who don’t use gels regularly, and some people who don’t absorb the gel as well as others.”

The researchers say they intend to do research to confirm the study’s results, figure out why the gel didn’t protect more women and test the gel outside an experimental setting.

Comparing male and female circumscision

You can’t. They’re both awful, but  you just can’t. Rebecca Watson discusses:

Irish-born Nigerian bishop resigns, admits abuse of 14-year old

Archbishop Richard Burke

Via the Irish Times:

THE IRISH-BORN Catholic Archbishop of Benin City in Nigeria has resigned. In a statement yesterday Archbishop Richard Burke (61), who grew up in Fethard, Co Tipperary, said his resignation, which has been accepted by Pope Benedict, was because he had been unfaithful to his vow of celibacy.

Early last year Archbishop Burke, a member of St Patrick’s Missionary Society, based at Kiltegan, Co Wicklow, stepped aside as Archbishop of Benin City when he was accused of child sex abuse. He has always denied the allegation.

The woman making the allegation, Dolores Attwood (41), now lives in Canada with her husband and three children. In a detailed statement last October she accused the archbishop of having abused her in 1983 when she was 14 and a patient in hospital. She also alleged he had abused other young Nigerian girls.

The shame of the American Academy of Pediatrics

Via PR Newswire:

International human rights organization Equality Now is stunned by a new policy statement issued by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), which essentially promotes female genital mutilation (FGM) and advocates for “federal and state laws [to] enable pediatricians to reach out to families by offering a ‘ritual nick’,” such as pricking or minor incisions of girls’ clitorises. The Policy Statement “Ritual Genital Cutting of Female Minors”, issued by the AAP on April 26, 2010, is a significant set-back to the Academy’s own prior statements on the issue of FGM and is antithetical to decades of noteworthy advancement across Africa and around the world in combating this human rights violation against women and girls. It is ironic that the AAP issued its statement the very same day that Congressman Joseph Crowley (D-NY) and Congresswoman Mary Bono Mack (R-CA) announced the introduction of new bipartisan legislation, The Girls Protection Act (H.R. 5137), to close the loophole in the federal law prohibiting FGM by making it illegal to transport a minor girl living in the U.S. out of the country for the purpose of FGM.

Equality Now:

Contrary to the assertion in the AAP Statement that the World Health Organization (WHO) is “silent on the pros and cons of pricking or minor incisions,” the WHO recognizes that pricking, piercing and incising of girls’ genitalia are forms of female genital mutilation (Type IV) with no health benefits and only harmful consequences. The WHO has acknowledged an increasing trend for medically trained personnel to perform FGM and has strongly urged health professions to refrain from performing such procedures. Furthermore, a United Nations interagency statement on “Eliminating Female Genital Mutilation” issued by 10 UN agencies in 2008 states, “[T]he guiding principles for considering genital practices as female genital mutilation should be those of human rights, including the rights to health, the rights of children and the right to non-discrimination on the basis of sex.”

PZ Myers gets it right: What ever happened to “first, do no harm?”

They do say that they offer “nicking” as a compromise to avoid greater harm, so that the parents are satisfied and do not go looking for more severe forms of mutilation to perpetrate on their children. It is not enough. Their whole policy is designed to avoid confronting misogynistic bigots with the horrendous consequences of their traditions.

Will the abuse crisis shift the Catholic Church’s power southward?

Via Philip Jenkins in TNR:

The secular media also don’t enjoy the same pervasive presence in Africa and Latin America that it does in Europe, and the Church has its own powerful media voices that will defend the faith. […] Indeed, as the crisis quickens the wane of Europe’s Catholic influence, it will help solidify the Church’s new roots in the south. Membership there will continue to burgeon, and Church’s hierarchy will increasingly be paved with southern clerics. When the time comes to choose someone to succeed Pope Benedict XVI, the cardinals, acutely aware of the effects of the abuse crisis, will probably consider more innovative international candidates, untainted by European connections. A Latin American pope would be a likely choice.

Andrew Sullivan responds:

[The] abuse in these Southern hemisphere countries is likely to be much worse than in the West because the authoritarian culture is still resilient, if waning. At some point, without structural reform of the way the church is organized, the wave of revelations will hit the South as well. More to the point: it already has. Maciel was a Mexican, remember. Latin America is currently galvanized by tapes of a bishop abusing an altar boy. There was a pedophile scandal in Kenya. And marriage and polygamy are widespread among the priesthood in Africa. I suspect the South will be more affected in the future by priest scandals than the now-better-managed North…The Southern escape hatch is a delusion. Modernity is the problem. Plunging into Africa and fundamentalism will not be real answers.