By Dann Okoth
Susan is a young business executive on a roll. When she is not cutting deals and rubbing shoulders with big shots in the corporate world, she is plotting her next step.
Those who know her say it is just a matter of time before she strikes it big. What with the energy and dedication she immerses herself into every task cast at her.
So caught up in this quest for a better, bigger tomorrow is Susan that she barely has time for domestic chores like cooking and washing or social engagements outside her yuppie click. Every evening she passes by her favourite drinking joint to catch up with her buddies over a drink and a puff, the epitome of sophistication among the city’s younger women.
On weekends she goes clubbing and gobbles up beer and nyama choma into the wee hours. On the rare occasion she spends the weekend at home, she is always glued on the TV, snacking on popcorns, potato crisps and soft drinks.
To Susan, life is a limousine and will stop at nothing to enjoy the ride. But she is not alone. Medical experts are warning that young women are taking to harmful lifestyles that increase the risk of developing complications in pregnancy.
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"More young women are eating cholesterol-laden foods and drink heavily, factors that contribute to obesity and high blood pressure, which are not compatible with pregnancy," says Dr Caroline Tatua, assistant programmes director at Family Health Options Kenya (FHOK).
"The drinking and smoking bit is even worse because it often results in deformed or severely retarded babies," she adds.
The 2008-09 Kenya Demographic and Health Survey says there are 488 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births, up from 414 in 2003.
Most of these deaths are related to unsafe abortions, complications during and after delivery, haemorrhage and high blood pressure.
Tatua says danger also lurks beyond the brown bottle and puffs. The quest for success has brought with it the predilection for everything instant. Fast foods are now the staple for many yuppies who when not bar-hopping are slammed dead on the couch watching TV. The result, says Tatua, is we have a very ambitious lot of young people pursuing success mentally but doing little physically to prime their bodies for the trappings of success, which inevitably predisposes them to cardiovascular diseases.
"There has been a steady rise in cases of cardiovascular diseases in young women in urban areas, raising the risk of developing reproductive health challenges," she says.
Closely related to this is the worrying relationship between emerging pregnancy complications and early teenage sex.
A study by International Planned Parenthood Federation says early sexual activity among students is rampant, adding that eight out of 10 adolescents have had sex before age 20.
It adds that in secondary schools 13 per cent of students had fallen pregnant by age 14, while 10 per cent of the girls interviewed had been pregnant and had either given birth or procured an abortion.
Another study by FHOK blamed this on rising cases of teacher-student relationships. The study noted that such relationships were fraught with health risks for female students. "Some teachers are living with HIV and spreading it to young girls, who hardly know the kind of thing they are getting into. It is even more complicated because parents, especially those in rural areas, support these affairs for perceived economic gain," it warned.
According to the Centre for the Study of Adolescence, Nyanza has one of the highest teenage pregnancy and school dropout rates in the country. Girls in Nyanza become sexually active at an average age of 16, compared to 19 in Nairobi Province.
Nyanza’s high HIV/Aids prevalence rate of 15.3 per cent, twice the national average, makes the girls particularly vulnerable to contracting the disease.
Tatua attributes the rising cases of pregnancy complications to partially teenage pregnancy. "Because their pelvic bones have not fully developed the women suffer obstructed labour which could lead to stillbirth or at worse death," she notes.
Obstructed labour, she explains, often leads to obstetric fistula, a severe condition in which a hole develops between either the rectum and vagina or the bladder and vagina after a failed child birth. It often occurs due to lack of adequate medical attention.
The condition results in incontinence, severe infections and ulcerations of the virginal tract and paralysis caused by nerve damage. "Women with this disorder suffer social stigma due to odour, perception of uncleanliness and inability to have children," she notes.
Dr Tatua also warns that abuse of contraceptives has dire consequences for young women. "It is sad to note that many young women use the morning after pill as a regular contraceptive rather than as an emergency," she observes. The E-pill is intended for use as a precaution after an unintended sex such rape but if used regularly could lead to bareness, among other complications.
The spread of HIV/Aids coupled with the prevalence of other sexually transmitted infections such as gonorrhoea, syphilis and hepatitis ‘B’ has complicated matters.
Dr Samuel Buguri, an obstetric gynaecologist in Nairobi, says there has been an increase in cases of uterine fibroid among young women.