leaving the seat

July 28, 2011 in Uncategorized

I depart as editor of Health24 tomorrow, and I’d like to say a public thank you to the smart, innovative and altogether very cool team at Helath24. Between them, they’ve kept me laughing an indecent amount given how much of each day we spend thinking about the sometimes appalling medical stuff that crosses our desks. (For instance: we’re coming up for National Oral Health Month and Kidney Awareness Week, and if you think those are respectively about flossing and drinking water, brace yourself.)

I wish I could introduce you to my successor, but there are some papers yet to be signed before her appointment is confirmed, so I’ll just say this: watch the site. She’s absolutely brilliant, and I’m delighted to hand the baton to her.

I’m looking forward to enjoying Health24 from the other side of the fence.

phone bills that cost more than your holiday

July 22, 2011 in Uncategorized

Have you heard what happens if you forget to switch the data roaming facility off on your smart phone when you’re abroad?

I’ve just come back from a fortnight in sunny late-summer France countryside, helping a friend who runs cultural and cooking tours to her second home there. Sitting under the giant bay tree in her walled garden, chatting to friends, passing the wine, I heard a horror story. It involved some useful apps left running while one of our friends found his way round the sights and celebrations of Paris.

“I got a call in the morning from my service provider,” he said, “asking whether I knew that my bill was now R16 000.”

Remember, this is about 24 hours after landing on foreign soil.

There was a mad scramble as we all hunted down our phones, and turned them off in every way we possibly could.

I’m sure the phone companies have covered their backs when it comes to charges. I’m sure they can explain and justify them in terms of contracts signed. But morally, it sucks: the only commodity involved here is infinite. It’s not as if through running apps, we use up something significant. Our friend was tapping into something that doesn’t diminish through his use, yet he was billed probably a hundred times more for access than if he had tapped into it using a local mobile.

So much for relaxing. I’ve since heard of several other people coming back from holidays to face phone bills higher than the total cost of the rest of their holiday. I was terrified every time I switched my phone on to check SMSs.

I’m home safe, but still waiting for my bill to arrive. 

doesn’t anyone die of old age any more?

June 27, 2011 in Uncategorized

This week news wires delivered the preliminary findings of a new United Nations study which claims that nearly two thirds of the deaths in the world are caused by non-communicable diseases. That’s diseases such as cancer, diabetes and heart and lung disease.


Really? What about HIV/Aids? TB? Malaria?

No, says the UN: though they’ve been hogging the headlines, they’re not the real problem diseases.


What I want to know is this: doesn’t anyone die of old age any more?


I’d love to see those UN statistics analysed. Because what is written on death certificates, often, is a reflection of who signed them. If an HIV-positive TB patient dies with pneumonia in hospital for instance, what did he die of? The physician who signs the death certificate might write “cause of death: pneumonia” because pneumonia was, in fact, the final nail, if you’ll forgive the expression. The doctor who’s been treating him through his HIV might write “cause of death: Aids” because that’s the disease that’s really wracked the poor man’s system. And the same is true for tuberculosis: the hospital might write “cause of death: tuberculosis” because it was on the TB ticket that he was admitted to hospital.


The important message to take out of all of this is that we’re living longer, and not simply slipping away when the time’s up: most of us are exiting this life in a tangle of tubes and bleeping machines, with chemotherapy-ruined bodies, diabetes-wracked innards, solidified lungs and/or dicky hearts. So the thing is to make life as lovely as possible, for as long as possible, by keeping fit and healthy.


When I was young and brash, like many I insisted I wanted to live fast, and die young and beautiful. My father, older and wiser, said: “You’re right. Who wants to live to be 80 years old?” Then he answered us both: “Someone who’s 79: that’s who wants to live to 80.” And then, naturally, I shut up, because it’s true: in our own eyes, our lives are seldom so unpleasant that we’d rather not have them. Even when we’re old enough to have acquired dodgy knees and three pairs of glasses which we’re always looking for.


The UN report says the burden of non-communicable diseases is a function of factors “including tobacco use, unhealthy diet, lack of physical activity, obesity ahd harmful alcohol use”, which is a pretty good hit list for the sort of issues each of us ought to be guarding against.

So if none of those get you, will the UN concede old age got you?

My name is Tantric. How can I help you?

June 23, 2011 in Uncategorized

My colleague Susan tells me there is a petrol pump attendant in Rondebosch called Tantric.

We have been wondering whether his name is a reflection of his general efficiency. If so, bad luck for the good citizens of Rondebosch.

Here at Health24, we are great fans of efficiency. The cheery and speedy men at my local garage take three to four minutes to fill a car and wave it on its way with a smile and a clean windscreen. Coincidentally, according to Health24’s sexologist, that is the same length of time it takes the average man to climax during, um, non-Tantric nookie.

By contrast, Sting, the poster boy for Tantric action, can reportedly postpone his happy ending for hours. While this may be marvellous for Mrs Sting (assuming she has nothing else planned, like doing the laundry), delayed gratification is bad for business at your average petrol forecourt. Our man Tantric, if his name is also his mantra, could take all afternoon to fill your tank and tyres.

Pragmatism would seem to suggest that the names we carry have little or no influence on the lives we end up living, but I don’t know so much… Humans are hardly rational. We know, for instance, that stigma stops HIV disclosure; that acknowledging you’ve been hospitalised for an emotional condition makes others wary. And it doesn’t even have to relate to a real health or social issue. I know women who would never date a redhead; and men who would never date a big-breasted woman. Little things – things that are ultimately meaningless – can be quite life-limiting, and life-defining.

So why not a name?

A teenage-style panic is underway

June 9, 2011 in Uncategorized

I am panicking because I need a dress for the ball.

The last time I was in this state was around the matric dance. My mother – an excellent seamstress, generous with her time and flashy with her needle – was working on something I thought I didn’t want.

In that instance, it turned out my mother was right. The dress she made for me remains a fond memory of burned-orange trilobal. Well, it was long ago.

Today, however, there is no mother with pins in her mouth to bail me out, for I have grown up and moved 1,000km away. I shall have to buy something for tomorrow’s matric-dance-for-grownups, the University of Cape Town Graduation School of Business’s graduation ball. There will be loads of photographs, all of which will be widely shared, therefore there cannot be any troll-like ones among them. Ergo, a new dress is required.

It’s a serious business, a special-occasion dress. As Health24’s psychology of beauty zone argues, “it’s sad, but it’s a fact: others judge you by your looks. That has implications for your job status, your income, your social life.” Naturally, fascinating jobs, an enormous amount of dosh and a fabulous social life are way up there on my love-list, so those Facebook photographs had better be good.

Here at Health24, we’ve been much taxed lately by issues around image. For instance, we published an amazing series of photographs showing people before and after getting into serious drug abuse situations – looking at that, it was like seeing the passage of time massively accelerated, with ordinary (if largely unhappy-looking) people turning into crazy versions of themselves. Check it out here if you missed it. And between LeAnn Rimes (click here for our sister site Women24’s coverage of the tiff about her hip bones) and Kate Middleton’s emaciated bridal look, we’re naturally thinking about how self-image can be distorted.

For both women and, increasingly, men, getting to healthy weight is more than just a health ambition: it’s a social ambition. And since, as we know, you can “never be too rich or too thin”, more and more people, especially in the public eye, resort to excessive and dangerous methods to get there. Check out our Diet Detective section to find out the good, the bad and the fad. Winter is a great time to put in place those healthy eating patterns that stand us in good stead come summer’s great unrobing.

For me, with just 30 hours to go, it’s not an option to lose a couple of kilograms. It’s going to have to be a great dress.

And possibly some nasty “foundation garments”.

Got to go.

honestly, Health24 readers give me grey hairs

June 2, 2011 in Uncategorized

Both my colleague Susan Erasmus and I have not-so-secret crushes on Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi. He’s tall (we think), he’s certainly handsome, he seems eminently sensible (so far), and he responds manfully when confronted with evidence of the carelessness, corruption and incompetence that characterise the state medical system. He’s our kind of guy.

So I was gutted when Susan shared the news that as far as he’s concerned, she and I show a self-interest and greed that would shame the Devil. Just because we’re sceptical about the state’s NI ambitions.

Ah well. It was beautiful while it lasted.

Susan and I are not alone, of course. In a medical schemes survey last year, we asked Health24 readers what they thought about the likelihood of the NHI fulfilling its own ambitions, and an overwhelming two-thirds gave it a thumbs-down. So that makes you greedy and self-interested too. Welcome to our club.

We’ve just finished exploring the nooks and crannies of the other main survey we did late last year – the Health of the Nation survey – and that tells us a lot more about Health24 readers too. Read the full results here; and go here to read some more articles about what we discovered.

One of the highlights, for me, was how deluded we are. For instance, a rather self-satisfied 90% of us rate our lifestyles as “generally OK on the health front” or “very healthy”, meaning only 10% of us concede that we are pretty unhealthy. However, compare that to the following statistics:

  • ·         Just under 30% of us are smokers, of greater or lesser commitment;
  • ·         14% of us are obese  (carry “a lot of extra kg”) and a further 52% are overweight, meaning at least two-thirds of us need to lose weight;
  • ·         13% of us are firmly committed to fast food – “love it, need it, eat it!”

In other words, many of us consider ourselves “healthy” while we continue to smoke and pile kilograms on top of already surplus kilograms.

Honestly, on top of my sense of rejection from the Health Minister, it’s enough to give me grey hairs.

oh enough with the end of the world already

May 27, 2011 in Uncategorized

Now that May 21 has come and gone without any large-scale emigration to Heaven on the part of the pious, it’s probably safe to ask: what’s all this obsession with the end of the world anyway?

Johannes Coetzee – he who led a party of 80 into a Jozi hotel to wait out the Rapture (does the one who doesn’t get “taken” get to settle the bill?) – was squirming at a press conference in the aftermath of the non-event. Coetzee, now “begging God for forgiveness for misinterpreting the information in the Bible” and getting the timing wrong, still remains convinced that the world will “end” on October 21. This time, he assured the media conference, it would be destroyed by “sulphur and fire”. The guy doesn’t learn.

I rather like the world. And from where I’m standing, there seems to be a lot of care and loveliness going around that’s worth saving.

For instance, last week’s peaceful, good-natured, smooth election. And the efforts people make to get the rest of us to notice what’s important. I’ve banged on here about the war between motorists and cyclists, for example, though I know the vast majority of people on bicycles and in cars are gentlefolk who like to get along. On Not-the-Rapture day, I spent a couple of hours riding the streets of Sea Point and central Cape Town as part of the annual global Ride of Silence, which aims to conscientise us about sustainable transport. I love the fact that someone gets it together to organise those things, and that ordinary folk turn up to gently make a very important point.

Something else that makes me feel good about the world: I just got sent away from the blood donor clinic because it’s only three days since I was under the dentist’s drill, and that’s one of the super-careful measures the blood people take so that blood is 100% safe. I really like that.

Another reason it would be wildly disappointing if the world ended in October, is because our lovely fitness editor, Amy Froneman, is busy growing what we hope is another redhead: we love an office baby.

I could go on indefinitely about Reasons to Love the World and the People we Share it With, but I’ve inviited Health24 readers to give me their whoopee moments. I’ll post a link to that roundup in a day or two.

there is more that unites us, etc

May 20, 2011 in Uncategorized

Forgive me if you’ve already heard this one. It’s an election variation on an old battle-of-the-sexes joke:


A woman in a hot air balloon realised she was lost. She lowered her altitude and spotted a man below.


“Excuse me,” she called, “can you help me? I promised a friend I would meet him an hour ago, but I don’t know where I am.”


The man consulted his portable GPS. “You’re in a hot air balloon, approximately 10m above a ground elevation of 782m above sea level,” he said. “You are at 31 degrees, 14.97 minutes north latitude and 100 degrees, 49.09 minutes west longitude.”


She rolled her eyes and said: “You must be a DA supporter!”


“I am,” replied the man. “How did you know?”


“Well,” answered the balloonist,” everything you told me is technically correct, but I have no idea what to do with your information, and I’m still lost. Frankly, you’ve not been much help.”


The man smiled and responded: “You must be an ANC government official.”


“I am,” replied the balloonist. “How did you know?”


“Well,” said the man, “you don’t know where you are or where you are going. You’ve risen to where you are due to a large quantity of hot air. You made a promise that you have no idea how to keep, and you expect me to solve your problem. You’re in exactly the same position you were in before we met, but, somehow, now it’s my fault.”


Someone sent me this joke yesterday, just after I’d had my thumb inked, and it perfectly summed up the atmosphere at my voting station. Outside in the chilly sunlight, two tables had been set up: a DA table, and an ANC table. Each had a couple of frozen-looking party people on hard chairs, and both tables were being thoroughly ignored by the voters who were trickling in. Still, they were having a fine time, chatting between the party tables, teasing one another with the stereotypes. It was all, as it should be, friendliness; and inside, things were exactly the same – efficient, friendly, happy.


And that pretty much sums up what makes South Africa – yesterday, today and usually – the special place it is. Yes, we have deep and profound issues of class, race and wealth that are proving knotty to resolve; yes we have many bitter and angry people whose legitimate fears and complaints urgently need to be addressed and resolved. Yes, we have Julius Malema with his outdated and inconsistent political ideas, and we have many others in positions of power who don’t distinguish between power and responsibility; and because of them, we have whole regions suffering from non-delivery.


But mostly we have a nation of peace-loving, hard-working, tolerant, good citizens, who don’t react with animosity to contrary political alignment, and who approach life’s downsides with realism, finding every opportunity to have a laugh. For all the rhetoric in the run-up to the election, and for all that the outcome is going to have profound day-to-day implications for many of us, yesterday was one big celebration of that old statement: there is more that unites us than divides us.


there is more that unites us, etc

May 20, 2011 in Uncategorized

Forgive me if you’ve already heard this one. It’s an election variation on an old battle-of-the-sexes joke:


A woman in a hot air balloon realised she was lost. She lowered her altitude and spotted a man below.


“Excuse me,” she called, “can you help me? I promised a friend I would meet him an hour ago, but I don’t know where I am.”


The man consulted his portable GPS. “You’re in a hot air balloon, approximately 10m above a ground elevation of 782m above sea level,” he said. “You are at 31 degrees, 14.97 minutes north latitude and 100 degrees, 49.09 minutes west longitude.”


She rolled her eyes and said: “You must be a DA supporter!”


“I am,” replied the man. “How did you know?”


“Well,” answered the balloonist,” everything you told me is technically correct, but I have no idea what to do with your information, and I’m still lost. Frankly, you’ve not been much help.”


The man smiled and responded: “You must be an ANC government official.”


“I am,” replied the balloonist. “How did you know?”


“Well,” said the man, “you don’t know where you are or where you are going. You’ve risen to where you are due to a large quantity of hot air. You made a promise that you have no idea how to keep, and you expect me to solve your problem. You’re in exactly the same position you were in before we met, but, somehow, now it’s my fault.”


Someone sent me this joke yesterday, just after I’d had my thumb inked, and it perfectly summed up the atmosphere at my voting station. Outside in the chilly sunlight, two tables had been set up: a DA table, and an ANC table. Each had a couple of frozen-looking party people on hard chairs, and both tables were being thoroughly ignored by the voters who were trickling in. Still, they were having a fine time, chatting between the party tables, teasing one another with the stereotypes. It was all, as it should be, friendliness; and inside, things were exactly the same – efficient, friendly, happy.


And that pretty much sums up what makes South Africa – yesterday, today and usually – the special place it is. Yes, we have deep and profound issues of class, race and wealth that are proving knotty to resolve; yes we have many bitter and angry people whose legitimate fears and complaints urgently need to be addressed and resolved. Yes, we have Julius Malema with his outdated and inconsistent political ideas, and we have many others in positions of power who don’t distinguish between power and responsibility; and because of them, we have whole regions suffering from non-delivery.


But mostly we have a nation of peace-loving, hard-working, tolerant, good citizens, who don’t react with animosity to contrary political alignment, and who approach life’s downsides with realism, finding every opportunity to have a laugh. For all the rhetoric in the run-up to the election, and for all that the outcome is going to have profound day-to-day implications for many of us, yesterday was one big celebration of that old statement: there is more that unites us than divides us.


An oily sort of week

April 26, 2011 in Uncategorized

Twice in the past two days, I’ve been instructed to swallow oil. For anyone who has to keep an eye on their weight, this is a bit of a novelty.

The first time, I was at the hopelessly romantic Vesuvio olive farm between Paarl and Wellington in the Cape. The makers of oil naturally have a special interest in us swallowing more of the stuff, but the occasion was actually a blind olive oil tasting. At these, you don’t spit, you swallow. And goodness me, it was revealing. Some of the oils burned all the way down, and had a harsh, crude flavour. Others meandered in a mellow way, tasting of grass and greenery and, well, olives. All of them were labeled “extra-virgin” – the least-processed, best kind of olive oil – so what was that variation in quality all about?

We know olive oil is a health hero. It contains a large volume of monounsaturated fats, is low in saturated fats, and is packed with antioxidants. Oh, and it is delicious. Logically enough, the better the olives, the better the quality of olive oil – so a farm on which olives are hand-picked and/or which uses olives of known provenance, is likely to be a more reliable producer of deliciousness. 

There’s some question about whether all oils labelled”extra-virgin” are telling the truth (extra-virgin oil comes from the first, cold pressing of the olives, which maximises both health benefits and flavour). Food labeling in SA is an ongoing nonsense. There is still considerable confusion about the latest regulations, which took 17 years to develop, and which were due to come into play on March 1 this year. But even if they were in force, it’s unclear whether they’d apply to imported goods – and since supermarkets import cheap “extra virgin” olive oil by the shipload, we’d still be none the wiser.

I’m a great believer that “a little of what you fancy does you good”, so I suspect the solution is to accept that extra-virgin olive oil doesn’t come cheap, and buy a good – local! – brand to use in dressings and for ciabatta-dipping. For everyday cooking, switch to the cheaper virgin oil, or another type of oil if you must. But if health and taste matter to us, let’s stop supporting the possibly chemicalised fraudulent cheapie imports.

Anyway, the second time I was instructed to swallow oil, the substance in question was ghee. That’s clarified butter, widely used in Indian cuisine. A couple of spoons of that at lunchtime would see me right, I was told.


I hear dieticians gasp.

The occasion, this time, was a consultation with an Ayurvedic doctor at the Jiva Grande Spa at the Taj Hotel in Cape Town. As a bit of an afterthought, I had asked about dietary solutions for my dry skin, and “ghee” is what he said.
“But,” he laughed, “you’ll have to watch your weight.”

Weight risk be damned! I think I’m going to try it – swop some other fats for the deliciously nutty ghee, and see how I go. Dry-skinned dry-haired readers: watch this space.

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