12 health risks this Xmas and how to avoid them

Nyama choma is a delicacy on most Kenyans' menus this Christmas. Doctor advises against overindulging in nyama choma as the direct heat on animal fat triggers uric acid which causes gout especially for people who take alcohol. PHOTO | FILE | NATION

1. Food

It’s the time for seasonal comfort foods and to slaughter that goat or chicken to eat with a side of chapati. For most Kenyans, it’s not Christmas unless there’s nyama choma. However, when you overindulge during the holidays, you not only gain weight, but you can also overtax your digestive system as well as lose sleep and develop heartburn.

Dr Gladys Mugambi a nutritionist at the Ministry of Health says while there’s nothing wrong with making merry, it is important to go slow especially with deep fried foods. “It is unhealthy to overeat deep fried foods. It is also unhealthy to overindulge in nyama choma because that direct heat on animal fat triggers uric acid which causes gout especially for people who take alcohol,” she says.

SAFETY TIP: Exercise to burn the fat and keep healthy, advises Dr Mugambi, who says people also have to be mindful of liquid calories. “If possible, walk around or play with the children to burn the fat rather than indulging while staying put,” she says.

2. Disease trends

It’s the season for visitors and some will be travelling in from outside the country. A polio outbreak travel alert has been issued for 14 African countries.

The US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has said in the new alert published on December 11, “there are confirmed polio outbreaks in various countries primarily located in central and eastern Africa”. While Kenya is not on the list of CDC and WHO, both recommend those who have visited the infected areas for more than four weeks should receive an additional dose of oral polio vaccine or inactivated polio vaccine within four weeks to 12 months of travel.

Also to be the on the lookout for is the seasonal flu, which is hardly unavoidable. Many have come down with it this year. There is likelihood of getting the flu especially in crowded places such as malls and churches.

SAFETY TIP: WHO says you do not have to go through fever, a dry cough, headache, muscle and joint pain, a sore throat and a runny nose if you take these simple measures:

Get vaccinated, especially for children aged between six months and five years, elderly people, those suffering from chronic medical conditions, and for health workers.
Wash your hands with soap and running water and avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth.
Avoid being around sick people and, if you don’t feel well, stay at home.

3. Accidents at home

Christmas is an exciting and magical time of the year, but it can also be stressful and, in some cases, dangerous. It’s important to be aware of the most common festive hazards to prevent accidents at home.

Everyday holiday activities occasionally result in lacerations, deep cuts, falls and accidental poisoning, says Dr Benjamin Wachira of Aga Khan hospital’s Accidents and Emergency unit.

He says accidental poisoning, especially among children, is common and that this is caused by drinking something they should not have. “We mostly treat accidental poisoning and injuries from falls at the emergency unit during this time,” he says.

SAFETY TIP: Should you get into an accident at home, go to hospital as soon as possible to avoid worsening the situation. “People often come when it is a little late, so it’s advisable that they keep emergency contacts close and come to hospitals as fast as possible,” says Dr Wachira.

4. Alcohol

Just like kissing under the mistletoe during Christmas, imbibing alcohol to a number during the festive season is close to inevitable.

It is a season characterised by end-of-year parties, family lunches and meetups with friends. Bottles of beer and whiskey will be among other “social lubricants”.

A study conducted and published in the Lancet journal looked at data on 28 million people worldwide and revealed that the dangers of drinking alcohol superseded any potential health benefits. The research outlined that the health risks start off small with one drink a day, but they “rise rapidly” as people drink more. Considering the risks, it concluded there is “no safe level of alcohol”. “The claims that alcohol has some magical, protective fix has no particularly serious scientific basis,” said Richard Peto of University of Oxford, one of the leading researchers.

According to World Health Organisation, excessive alcohol consumption leads to major diseases like neuropsychiatric disorders, gastrointestinal diseases, cancer, cardiovascular diseases, fetal alcohol syndrome and preterm complications. In addition, excessive consumption of alcohol leads to intentional and unintentional injuries.

SAFETY TIP: You can plan for some alcohol-free days and substitute this with non-alcoholic beverages.


The mood is festive and feisty and one is most likely to let their guard down on matters protective sex, especially with all the partying the holidays come with.

A study conducted in the UK by an independent online health platform revealed that one out of 10 people contracted an STI from a colleague after sex during a Christmas party.

According to Dr Simon Kigondu, a gynaecologist, substance abuse, that is quite common during the festive season, also puts a majority at risk of contracting HIV and STIs that could lead to other health complications. “For instance, Human Papilloma Virus, which accounts for 90 per cent of all the cervical cancer cases reported,” he said.

SAFETY TIP: Dr Kigondu advises on adherence to ABC: Abstinence, Be faithful and Correct consistent use of condoms.

6. Unwanted pregnancy

You are more likely to get an unplanned pregnancy during the holidays than any other time of the year. According to Dr Kigondu, a majority of people tend to be on break and spend more time with their partners.

An increase in the number of teenage pregnancies are also recorded during the festive season. Experts have attributed this spike to substance abuse among young people and societal pressures. “Young people are vulnerable and most of the time left alone without guidance from parents and guardians. Other than HIV and other STIs, the girls are at risk of unplanned teenage pregnancies,” says Dr Kigondu. Unplanned pregnancy is a contributor to the infant mortality rate. With unplanned pregnancy, comes the risk of unsafe abortions.

SAFETY TIP: Use of contraceptives will protect you for the unplanned pregnancy. Parents and guardians are advised to keep adolescents close and offer life skills to the young ones.

7. Road accidents

Every December, the number of road accident deaths increases. In December 2018, there were 342 deaths, according to the National Transport and Safety Authority (NTSA). In December 2017, the number rose to 356.

Currently, this year’s road crash fatalities have exceeded those of 2018, according to NTSA. In its latest survey, it says by December 17, 3,396 people had lost their lives on the roads, an increase of 13.4 per cent compared to the number of people who had died by the same date in 2018.

NTSA blames the majority of the accidents on road user behaviour which contributes to 98 per cent of the causes.

These include speeding, drunk driving, fatigue and inexperience. Poor visibility especially at night and bad road conditions also aggravate the situation in December.

SAFETY TIP: NTSA cautioned against speeding, urged for alertness while on the wheel and avoiding cell phone distraction. Drivers should also familiarise themselves with the roads and black spot stretches, take rest on the journey, drive diligently, stay sober, report reckless driving and pedestrians should be careful. NTSA also asked drivers to be careful while driving on flooded or destroyed roads and to avoid dirt and debris on the roads.

8. Weather change

During Christmas and New Year, people move around to celebrate. But, the movement comes with its risks emanating from weather change.

Some of the people could be moving from hot/humid or warm weather conditions to cold places and vice versa. According to Dr Victor Kibe, a climate expert, any change of environment may affect the health of a person. An increase in temperature may lead to dehydration very fast and in extreme cases a person may experience kidney failure. Although not common, people could also suffer from heat stroke, he says.

During the changes, there are high incidents of airborne diseases because of poor aeration, and infections like cholera, diarrhoea and typhoid because of lack of access to clean drinking water and/or drinking stored water.

SAFETY TIP: For those who are travelling to Western, Nyanza and Coast and areas where there were floods, they should be on malaria prophylaxis to prevent getting the disease because these are malaria endemic zones, he advises.

For those travelling to Central (areas of Mt Kenya) and some parts of Rift Valley like Kericho, he says, they could contract asthma because of the cold conditions and, therefore, should carry antihistamine. Also, those travelling to rural areas could be exposed to pollen and could get “seasonal allergic rhinitis” or chest complications and should also carry antihistamine to take in case they are attacked.

9. Mental health

There is a Swahili statement for the drinking in Kenyan social scenes: “chafua meza”. Loosely translated, it means “dirty the table with alcohol”. The Christmas and New Year are characterised by binge drinking, which may also involve experimenting or continuous use of substances such as drugs. Drugs have been found to induce mental disorders.

A study in 2008 by University of Nairobi’s Prof David Ndetei from the Africa Mental Health Foundation found that 34 per cent of patients in the hospital suffered from substance abuse disorder. The holiday season is also the time when those battling alcoholism relapse into addiction due to the temptation as they hang around people who are constantly drinking. It is also a time when people get together for celebrations and those who don’t have families or money have a hard time.

This can heighten anxiety to clinical levels. For Kenyans, December can be burdening: the dark cloud of children going to school in January which will require money, underemployment, loss of work and tough economic times among other factors.

SAFETY TIP: Get an accountability partner to keep you off drugs, avoid company that may influence substance abuse or alcoholism, seek professional help from a psychologist, counsellors or psychiatrists.

For financial concerns, budget and stick to it.

10. Fatigue

On her Facebook page, *Mary Nderitu cracks a joke about what the holidays mean for her as a teacher, a wife and a mother in a large family, where it is mandatory for people to get together at her father in law’s home. She shares a caricature of an exhausted woman with dribble coming from her mouth along with an explanation that she and her two sisters in law will be expected to cater to the needs of their husbands, their children and all those invited to spend the holidays with them. In the evening, their husbands will be expected to drop every relative to their home.

These activities, as Ms Nderitu narrates, contribute to fatigue.

SAFETY TIP: Politely turn down some invitations that would take a lot from you physically, emotionally and financially, create time for rest and don’t feel guilty about it.

11. Sleep

The holidays are a great time for teenagers, who are on school break, to binge on TV shows and wear out their thumbs as they scroll on social media posts. Adults, on the other hand, are entertaining guests overnight, partying and club hopping. As fun as these activities sound, they can keep you from sleep.

While research in this area in Africa has been scarce, a 2012 WHO-backed study on eight African and Asian countries — including Kenya — shows that many adults are not getting adequate sleep. In Kenya, 11 per cent of women and four per cent of men spend less than the required seven to eight hours of sleep. CDC has linked sleep deprivation to anxiety of clinical levels, hastening Alzheimer’s disease and memory problems.

SAFETY TIP: Parents should chaperon technology use as the blue light from screens suppresses the production of sleep hormone, making it harder to fall asleep. People are advised to practise discipline and schedule time to sleep. Make bedrooms sleep-friendly: darker curtains and switch off the lights around the time one is about to sleep. Also, create time for sleep without feeling guilty.

12. Fear of missing out & social media pressure

Kisumu baker and businesswoman Barbara Amondi has found clients to buy her cakes from social media and is counting on these very platforms to get requests for cakes and expand her network this holiday season.

Unfortunately, research does not have such positive outcomes for the use of social media in teenagers and young adults. Researchers are raising concerns on mental anxiety such as “fear of missing out”, a pervasive apprehension that others might be having a rewarding experience from which the individual is absent.

In her book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, a professor says since many young people’s relationship with social media is immature and still evolving, they are not able to rationalise that people censor what they post online and that the personas they see online are fake.

SAFETY TIP: Accept that most success online may be unreal. Accept and be content with your situation. Stay away from social media and try making offline connections with family and friends around you during the holidays.