Saturday, August 18, 2012

Dollars from the Dead

More than 20,000 people, mostly minors, are trafficked out or through Kenya annually to places like Asia, Europe and other African countries according to the International Organization and Migration (IOM).  And although most reports says they are turned into forced labour and sex slaves chances are that some of them end up in the hands of illicit human organ trade cartels in the west.

According to a recent series of reports by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) conducted in eight months across 11 countries the business of harvesting bones, corneas, heart valves, skin and other body parts from cadavers to make medical products is thriving in the world.

The report vividly explains how “cadaver bone-harvested from the dead and replaced with PVC piping for burial-is sculpted like pieces of hardwood into screws and anchors for dozens of orthopedic and dental applications”.

In other instances the bone is ground and mixed with chemicals to produce strong surgical glues-used to attach organs and tissues after surgery- that is said to be better than artificial varieties while tendons are used to treat injured athletes. Other common uses of dead peoples’ body parts includes penis enlargement, breast reconstruction after cancer, smoothing wrinkled faces, cornea transplants, heart valve replacements, bladder slings for incontinence, bone grafts among others.

“In Kenya the most commonly harvested cadaver parts are corneas that are used in reconstructive eye surgery,” explains Dr. Eric Walong, a pathologist based at the University of Nairobi. “These donations happens with the dead person’s family consent and there is usually no monetary gains on either side of the deal”. 

Dr. Walong says that one of the biggest impediments towards the growth of organ industry in Kenya is the fact that there is no top of the range emergency services to preserve the bodies and organs in good shape awaiting surgical removal.

While families are mourning and rue the loss of loved ones, the ICIJ report claims, somebody somewhere might be celebrating all the way to the bank.
For instance ordinary “hustlers” wheeler-dealing with morgues in the United States can make up to $10,000 per corpse and RTI Biologics, a tissue and organ selling multinational grossly mentioned in the investigative report, is said to have raked in $169 million  in 2011. A fully processed disease-free body with all the organs recovered and applied to the various end uses can generate between $80,000 and $200,000 .

 A case in point on how global organ trade have become a “blood gold” mine in the last few years is Phillip Joe Guyett, arguably America’s largest freelance organ harvester ever nabbed. 

Bragging of how senior executives from multinational tissue companies treated him to $400 meals and five star hotel stays in order to clinch his services, Guyett writes in his peculiarly named memoirs Heads, Shoulder, Knees and Bones how he started seeing the dead “with dollar signs attached to their body parts”.

He was convicted of falsifying death records and sentenced to a prolonged jail term in 2006.

But while most European cadavers are from people who died in hospitals the report suggests that people trafficked from other part of the world like Africa might be killed to obtain vital organs and tissues since the demand is on the rise.

Weighing between three to four kilograms for an average adult human skin is one of the most sought after organ since it has a variety of uses.
“Human skin takes the colour of smoked salmon when it is professionally removed in rectangular shapes from a cadaver,” the ICIJ report says. “After being mashed up to remove moisture, some is destined to protect burn victims from life-threatening bacterial infections or, once refined, for breast reconstructions after cancer”.

Most of this multimillion dollar “blood gold” empire have been going on for years without the knowledge of the victims relatives, most of whom just pick the bodies of their loved one from the morgues straight to the cemetery without minding to check the cadaver’s conditions. 

“On the way to the cemetery. When we were in the hearse, one of his feet-we noticed that one of the shoes slipped off his foot, which seemed to be hanging loose,” Lubov Frolova, a Ukranian mother of one of the deceased whose organs and tissues were harvested told ICIJ. “When my daughter-in-law touched it  she said that his foot was empty”.

Police investigations revealed that two ribs, two Achilles tendons, two elbows, two eardrums and two teeth were among the organs that were missing in the body.

This was one of the incidences that led to the uncovering of a huge syndicate of illicit organ trade involving Ukrainian morgues and US human tissue multinationals was unearthed last months.

Besides violating the dead without the family consent the shadowy trade in human organs also exposes the recipients to the dangers of infections since most of the tissues are not subjected to proper medical test to establish the donor’s medical history.

While blood donations and intact organs like hearts and livers are bar-corded and strongly regulated it’s hard to verify the sterility of products made from skin and other tissues since there is no particular structures set in place to regulate the industry. Many countries leave the responsibility of identifying and confirming the identities of tissue donors to drug makers and tissue banks. 

However this might change soon since the World Health Organization (WHO) plans to track human tissue traded for transplants in order to ensure safety of donors and prevent illegal collections. ICIJ says that a work group to look at the issue has already been set up and it will have its first sitting in France at the end of August. 

“The working groups plans to introduce the system in five years, covering 193 countries,” the report claimed. “In addition to human tissue, the group intends to use codes for medical materials and other products derived from human tissues”.

Although the United States is the biggest trader of products from human tissue the authorities are unable to quantify the number of imported tissues, its country of origin or where the products subsequently goes. Many countries especially in the third world, including Kenya, don’t have don’t have regulations on the use of human tissues or if they are there they are week, ineffective or unimplemented. 

Supplying about two-thirds of the global human tissue product market, the United States through its Food and Drug Administration (FDA) which have the inspection records of only seven percent of the 340 tissue banks registered with it. 

“When the FDA registers you, all you have to do is fill out a form and wait for an inspection,” Dr. Duke Kasprisin, medical director for seven US tissue banks, told ICIJ. “For the first year or two you can function without having anyone look at you”.

With millions of hospitals in the world relying on FDA to ensure that they do not treat their patients with infected tissues, many practitioners have welcomed the WHO initiated.  

Also high in demand in the western human organ industry is the foreskin for the production of skin treatment medication and products.
And apparently this is not in short supply with WHO estimates claiming that 30 percent of world males are circumcisied with millions undergoing the process annually. 

Treated as a medical procedure in the west and a rite of passage in many third world countries the global demand for circumcision was triggered by a UNAIDS and Centre for Disease Control in 2007 indicating removing the foreskin reduces the risk of HIV/AIDS during penetrative sex.

The United States donated Sh960 million shillings towards the Ministry of Health’s five year nationwide free circumcision campaign aimed at curbing the spread of HIV/AIDS especially among communities that traditionally shunned the practice. 

But while a lot of attention is paid towards circumcision very little is discussed about what happens to the foreskins of the millions of males that are circumcised around the world every year. 

While in Africa the foreskin is either eaten by the initiate or circumciser, fed to animals or simply buried in the west, where practice is a hot debate with many arguing that its an unnecessary and painful process, the foreskin trade is a booming business. 

Besides being an important ingredient for numerous skincare products and interferon drugs the prepuce is chiefly used in the production of fibroblasts, skin cells used in the regeneration of new skin. Due to their biological properties fibroblasts are used in all kinds of medical procedures from eyelid replacement, growing skin for burn victims and those with diabetic ulcers to making anti-wrinkle creams and other products in the cosmetic industry.

According to scientific research one foreskin, which contains millions of fibroblast cells, treated through a process called culturing can be used for decades to produce miles of new skin for burn victims and those undergoing plastic surgery. 

A single foreskin contains enough genetic material to grow approximately 250,000 square feet of new smooth skin. With this lab-developed skin said to cost around $3,000 per square feet for burn patients one of this seemingly insignificant pieces of male genital flesh can generate thousands of dollars in revenues over a prolonged period of time. 

According to Caltech Undergraduate Research Journal, an award-winning undergraduate research journal of California Institute of Technology, infant foreskins are preferred because they have more potential for cell division and less incidence of tissue rejection since they have not fully developed their individual identifying proteins.

The inner lining of the foreskin is usually fused with the glans at birth making infant circumcision a precarious process. Although modernity has tried to alleviate the pain through contraptions like clamps, opponents of the practice among newborns argue that besides exposing the baby to unbearable pain and possible permanent tissue damage its also a violation of the young ones human rights.

Intercytex, a tissue generation company based in Cambridge United Kingdom, raised the foreskin utility business several notches higher by developing an injection-based drug called Valveta a few years ago. Dubbed a “fountain of youth in baby foreskins” Valveta is a foreskin-derived treatment product that rejuvenates and smoothens skin withered by age, wrinkles or damaged by scarring from acne, burns and surgical incisions. One vial of this medication, enough to treat an area of skin the size of a postage stamp, consists of about 20 million live fibroblasts, cells that produce the skin-firming protein called collagen which becomes increasingly scarce with age.

The number of Valveta vials that a patient needs is determined by the surface area of skin destroyed. However the drug, which goes for about $1000 (Sh82,000) per vial, is not approved for use outside the United Kingdom where it was introduced in 2007.

Despite spirited resistance from activists across the world infant circumcision remains popular in several parts of the world, which ensures that baby foreskin remains in constant supply. 

In Where is My Foreskin? The Case Against Circumcision Paul Fleiss, an American pediatrician and author known for his unconventional medical views, say “parents should be very wary of anyone who tries to cut their child’s foreskin since the marketing of purloined baby foreskins is a multimillion-dollar-a-year industry”.

And there might be a point to these allegations given that Dermagraft-TC, one of the many products grown from cells extracted from infant foreskins and used as a temporary wound covering for serious burn patients, sells for about $3,000 per square feet according to some American medical journals.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Reality Shows: Theatre of Glamour and Drama

Living in close quarters for 90 days with complete strangers with 53 cameras monitoring every movement you make and 120 microphones listening to every word, hiss and sigh you make, the Big Brother Africa StarGame is the ultimate embodiment Reality Television in Africa.

And since this genre of television is based on issues that are central to the modern society like music, survival in a harsh and competitive environment and the ability to tolerate others, it is all the rage among African viewers; after the English Premier League.

As proved by the just concluded Tusker Project Fame (TPF) the genre has handed broadcasters a new card in the art of keeping viewers glued to their television screens.

The competitive appetite of candidates in TPF, Sakata, Big Brother and other real life shows is whetted by the promise of, at times,  jaw-dropping prize money, instant stardom and multimillion shilling recording contracts.

“These shows have become popular among the youth because urbaniasation in Africa is rapidly overtaking industrialisation and morality, which means displaying what was previously viewed as taboo, like sex, is considered cool,” says Rev Timothy Njoya, a retired clergy.

“Since sex sells, the media and other players have been encouraging the growth of this consumerist shows to drive sales and increase viewership”.

And with Kenyan participants doing well this season, Ruth Matete won Sh5 million in cash and secured a Sh10 million recording with America’s Universal Group in the Tusker Project Fame and artiste Prezzo is among the six people vying for the Sh25 million prize in the Big Brother StarGame, popularity of reality shows in the country is bound to shoot through the roof.

Few viewers realize the fact that these programmes were hatched by marketing gurus in Europe and America as a way of connecting companies to their clientele through entertainment.
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Besides this, the alliance between the sponsors and telecommunications companies brings in huge sums of money from the text messaging system that viewers use to select the winners.

This mode of entertainment has achieved in a few years what politicians have failed to do in a very long time – a sense of Pan-Africanism.

This explains why very few take note when African leaders congregate at the African Union (AU) headquarters in Addis Ababa to proclaim declarations meant to foster the “United States of Africa” dream.

But when the likes of former Ghanaian Big Brother housemate Ras Wayoe shouted “Africa must unite”, millions of youths across the continent paid attention.

Through a stage-managed combination of glamour and drama, reality shows reinforce cross-national unity and integration, not only through the multinational coterie of contestants and real time viewing, but also by engaging the audience in a continental voting system.

“There is an integrating aspect to television,” says David Mafabi, a commentator on East African affairs, once noted. “Shows like these may be superficial, but they show Africa coming together in a way that’s often ahead of governments.”

The contestants, through their mass appeal and celebrity status, evoke patriotism and reinforce national unity in a manner that surpasses politics.

While voting for Ruth Matete in the just concluded TPF5, Kenyans put aside their political, ethnic and other differences to ensure one of their “own” was crowned champion.

During his homecoming after an eventful sojourn in the premier of Big Brother Africa in 2003, Ugandan Gaetano Kaggwa, crowned the ‘People’s Prince’ by adoring fans, was received at Entebbe Airport by a crowd so huge that the country’s political leadership fretted with President Yoweri Museveni wondering “where was Gaetano and Big Brother before South Africa was cleaned of the bad regime”.

A subtle sense of humour, constantly raised eyebrows and quizzical side-glances laced with naughtiness earned “Gae” millions of admirers not only in his native Uganda but also across the continent.
The downside of Big Brother, arguably the most watched reality show in Africa, is the fact that it is beamed through the exclusive pay TV, a luxury affordable to a select few.

Although millions of Africans watch television in communal settings, estimates claim that fewer than eight per cent own sets. But thanks to M-Net, which has over 1.6 million subscribers distributed unequally in more than 40 countries according to their financial report or the first quarter of 2012, the number of people with access to satellite television in the continent grows by around 10 per cent a year.

The few that are broadcast through free-to-air channels like TPF always prove to be a hit with the national or regional audiences, a fact proved by the huge amounts of money television stations cough up for broadcasting rights.

However, the money is recouped handsomely through brand equity and advertising.

Reality TV captivates its audience through constant conflict and romance (real or faked) in the common houses.

“I wish the housemates would talk about real issues. Given that Big Brother Africa is being watched by people all over Africa, they shouldn’t be arguing over eggs,” said a Malawian viewer of Big Brother Africa Two.

Although sometimes such wrangling leaves the crowd of multinational housemates deeply divided, the fact that it happens in millions of homes has created a strong cultural force.

Big Brother, both in Africa and beyond, has earned a reputation for tolerating sex, alcoholism and raunchy talk. More often than not, winners are contestants who thrive in these excesses.
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Critics say the contestants in reality shows are not a true reflection of the ordinary African youth since most are middle-class “spoilt brats” with alien accents.

“They are getting people (as contestants) who watch the show already, not someone from a shack in Kampala,” complained Doug Mitchell, a lecturer in television at South Africa’s Rhodes University.

This  was observation was validated by an incident in the maiden show of Big Brother Africa when Zein Dudha, the Malawian housemate, was loudly condemned by his fellow countrymen as being unrepresentative of the country’s ordinary youth, after he failed to sing the national anthem in Chichewa, Malawi’s street lingo.

However, despite these kinds of misgivings reality shows, Pan-Africanists claim, that they could be the missing link in the quest for African unity and integration that the post-independence generation of political leaders spent millions of taxpayer’s shillings in conferences, committees and secretariats trying to achieve.

“The programme is serving to break down misconceptions and stereotyping. There’s a perception in the rest of Africa that Nigerians are less than honest, that South Africans are arrogant. I think our show challenges those views,” Carl Fischer, former Head of M-Net’s official productions, said in 2006.

Besides creating an ideal platform for entertainment, cultural integration and exposing talent, reality television shows have opened a new channel through which society can articulate issues and bring to the limelight the human side of the so-called celebrities.

Tender Mavundla, a contestant in one edition of M-NET Idols, rocked the showbiz world in 2007 when she disclosed her HIV-positive status before millions of viewers.

“I do have HIV, but that does not make me any different from someone with cancer or a diabetic. I feel normal and don’t want people’s pity. I’ve got a good voice and would like to use it to bring pleasure to others.”

Though the then 26-year-old shop attendant from Durban didn’t win the ultimate prize, her confession was a great boost towards the fight against stigma and discrimination, which is associated with the disease in Africa

Like Doreen Muchiri, who reached the TPF5 last four by seeking votes through her appeal as helpless “country girl” out to chase her dreams in the big stage, the winner of Big Brother Africa 1 Cherise Mukabale from Zambia won hearts by pleading with viewers to vote for her since she was an orphan who needed the money not for showbiz but to solve real life problems.
“Always the underdog on the international scene and in almost every field of human endeavour,” noted a South African newspaper after Cherise’s win, “Africans identify strongly and very personally with people perceived as helpless, hurting, and in need”.

Reality television has also greatly reinforced the rapid growth of celebrity culture since it is a perfect launching pad for young people interested in showbiz. Due to the huge limelight accorded to these Reality TV by the sponsors, media and the public, winning is no longer the objective for some of the contestants.

Just being a participant is enough to land one a lucrative contract in radio, television, adverting and marketing. Or politics.

Watching the lifestyle of contestants in the just concluded TPF5, one gets a glimpse of the reason why most youths die to be in the house in Ruaraka. Ferried around by chauffeur-driven Hummers and flanked by mean-looking musclemen in black suits, these wannabe superstars  move around signing autographs, greeting fans and giving interviews on FM stations.

Throw in the Sh5 million prize money and the Sh10 million recording contract and you have the recipe to attract the best talent but also throngs of comical fame and fortune hunters at the auditions.

But to its credit Tusker Project Fame has, in just five years of existence, culturally connected and united the regional population in a way the East African Community hasn’t in the past three decades.

Notable personalities that have reality shows to thank for their rise to fame and careers in the media are radio personalities Sanaipei Tande, Karen Lucas, Max “Didge” Nyatome and Debarl Ainea from Kenya, Gaetano Kaggwa from Uganda, Blu3 music group from Uganda and Prave, Wutah and Dokolo all from West Africa.

Although some winners of these music talent shows go on to build successful careers, none has ever scaled the heights of the continent’s greats like Lucky Dube, Papa Wemba, Brenda Fassie or Fela Kuti.
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This and the fact that most of the ‘stars’ turn out to be one-hit wonders struggling to remain in the limelight a few years on, shows how fragile synthetic fame can be.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Mt. Kenya: The Climb.

Two weeks ago, I became part of the statistics of those who have climbed Mt Kenya as I joined more than 16,000 hikers, both local and foreign, who attempt to get to the peak of the mountain every year.
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Although I have always wanted to climb this mountain, I never imagined I would do it in a group of seasoned climbers who were being drilled in order to choose the best among them to climb Mt Everest, the highest and toughest in the world.

“Together with the chosen candidate, I will attempt to reach the summit of Mt Everest in the spring of 2014 to raise Sh40 million for the construction of the Flying Kites Leadership Academy, a school and home for orphaned children in Njabini, in Kinangop” explained Toby Storie-Pugh, a professional climber and director of Everest Expedition.

“In addition to raising funds, we will also be setting an example to the children of Flying Kites that any goal is attainable if you dare to start and are determined to finish”.

The chosen candidate is also expected to spearhead a fundraising campaign for the next two years before making the attempt on Mt Everest in March 2014.

I was the “most amateur” in this group that comprised of Amanda Gicharu, a 26-year-old Google employee, Helen Kinuthia, a 25-year-old teacher at Hillcrest School, Steve Obbayi, a 38-year-old software engineer, Chris Mureithi, 51-year-old aeronautical engineer, and Mohamed Bharmal, a 31-year-old banker from Mombasa.

The expedition had no porters so everyone had to carry their tents and food rations besides their own luggage.

With our heavy backpacks, we started up the winding road from Sirimon Gate, our indulgence in the scenic mountainous abundance was only interrupted by a sudden shower that had everyone reaching for their rain gear.

I wasted precious minutes fumbling for my rain gear since I had kept it too deep in my bag, during which time I was soaked to the bone.

“Lesson number one in mountaineering is “always learn how to arrange your gear in the back pack,” advises Chris Mureithi, a veteran climber who has been to Point Batian 46 times.

Retaining heat is one of the principle survival skills in high attitude climbing hence getting wet in such cold conditions is the last thing that a mountaineer would want.

After three and a half hours of trekking, we eventually reached Old Moses Camp, the first stop for climbers using the Sirimon route to the peak. The camp is no more than an array of blue painted corrugated iron sheet structures forming a ‘U’ perched on a flat hilltop and swarming with porters and hikers.

Apart from the joy of freeing my shoulders from the heavy backpack, our kitchen team are at hand to serve us hot tea, the best meal to any soul at these freezing heights.

This was no ordinary mountain hike but a drill to separate the wheat from the chaff in the process of picking one tough Kenyan to fly the country’s flag up the Everest.
We not only had no porters but we were also supposed to pitch our own tents, which was no mean task especially for first timers like me. But with the help of Chris, with whom I would be sharing a tent for the next three nights, we pitched ours fast enough to lend a hand to some of our colleagues.

Even with several layers of warm clothing, thick gloves, socks and zipped inside a sleeping bag, I started feeling chilblains on my fingers and toes – like sharp blades of freezing blood penetrating through my body.

I tossed and turned the whole night in a futile attempt to keep warm. My tent-mate would, meanwhile, start snoring barely 10 minutes after zipping himself inside his sleeping bag.

After what seemed like an eternity, dawn finally crept in. The routine of a breakfast of oatmeal porridge, tea, bread and pancakes, dismantling tent, filling water bottles in readiness for the arduous trek ahead was religiously observed.

“The easiest way to ensure a successful climb is to take a step at a time, or baby steps if you like,” explained Chris. “To gauge whether you are at the right pace, you need to close your mouth and try breathing through the nose. If you can’t do that comfortably then you should slow down.”

Leader of the expedition, Toby Storie-Pugh, who has climbed Mt. Everest, was always ahead of the pack despite the fact that he had the heaviest backpack.

Although the second day was exhausting with two steep valleys to climb, the famous moorlands with acres of rare high attitude vegetation that only those who dare the dizzy heights have an opportunity to gaze at, simply took my breath away.

“The scenario produces leaves after 21 years which makes most of the ones you see scattered in these valleys not less than 40 years old,” explained Chris as we sat above Mackinder Valley, named after Hailford Mackinder, the first European to ascend Point Batian in 1899.”

As we dropped our backpacks to sit on the rocks for a midday bite, the guide explained that Shipton Camp, our stop for the night, was around two hours away.

After six hours and 16 kilometres of trekking, Shipton Camp finally bobbed up. Like Old Moses before it, this camp, named after British climber Eric Shipton, is an L-shaped row of blue iron sheet structures tucked deep in the Mackinder Valley and the foot of the two majestic peaks of Mt Kenya; Lenana and Batian.

Everyone was excited because we would be making a run for the peak the following day.

Ordinarily those who get to the peak of Mt Kenya wake up at 2am so as to be at Point Lenana at the crack of dawn.

But this being a drill, we broke camp at sunrise for a three and a half-hour trek to the top by eight o’clock.

Not even the weird dizziness uncoiling from the centre of my head could dull the urge to quench my visual thirst in the amazing beauty of nature at these heights.

Crawling on all fours over jugged rocks, I finally, in the company of Amanda, Helen, Chris and our guide Cyrus, climbed up the newly installed metal hooks to join Toby and Steve on the flat rock projection that is known the world over as Point Lenana.
The feeling of victory, accomplishment and history that hang over my head as I took in the breathtaking views of valleys of ice, glacier and rock plunging hundreds of feet below was simply overwhelming.

You can access the story at Business Daily on the following link: