Geophagy - the cultural practices of eating soil - common in many sub-Saharan countries?

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Geophagy - the cultural practices of eating soil - common in many sub-Saharan countries?

I've just been looking at quite a number of research articles - for example this one - which talk about the cultural practices of eating soil. I read that it is common in many sub-Saharan countries.

The health risks of such cultural practices include ingestion of toxic metals, biological pathogens and ascaris hookworms.

Given that, I was wondering the extent to which WASH projects might (and perhaps already do) consider geophagy as a source of diarrheal disease.

Here are some quotes from that paper:

The habit of eating soil is a common phenomenon in some parts of Africa. In South Africa, the habit of eating soil has been observed in different groups of people especially the pregnant, breast feeding mothers and children. In children, the habit could either be voluntary or involuntary. This practice has a long old tradition, with the notion that eating soil is just as normal as eating fruits plucked directly from the tree.


And from the conclusion:

The present study revealed a significant difference in elemental concentration from all the geophagic soil samples collected from the same province. This may be as a result of differences in parent material or different levels of soil pollution around the area. When soils with high lead level are ingested by pregnant women, the vulnerable foetus might be at risk.
It will be extremely difficult to curb or stop the habit of eating soil from these areas because of its perceived benefits. It is therefore imperative for government and different stake holders to pronounce legislation on the permissible level of different elements in soil that are consumed by these groups of individuals.


This paper is only looking at heavy metals, I have found several others looking at pathogens.
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Re: Geophagy - eating soil

Hi, I am still interested in comments on this phenomena.

I read that it is particularly common in Kenya and South Africa. Are you aware of it where you work?

It seems to me that this could be a source of infection outwith of sanitation.
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Re: Geophagy - eating soil

Dear Joe,
I recently received some photos from Larry Hadley in South Africa, a retired paediatric surgeon.

When I saw this photo, I thought of your post on the forum - which is the first time I had heard about the practice of eating soil on purpose:

Ascaris infection in X-ray image: Pica, the practice of eating soil (South Africa) by Sustainable sanitation , on Flickr

The description of this photo says:
"The practice of eating soil (called pica or geophagy) is not uncommon amongst children and pregnant women. The women do it on purpose. Obviously if you're going to eat soil you're going to eat whatever ova are in the soil and makes ascariasis a high probability. The soil particles show up as white on this plain Xray."

I could ask him more specific questions if we have any?
Larry has also sent me some important (and gruesome) photos of worms in the human body (visible in the same set on flickr) which I will post about in another thread soon.


Regards,
Elisabeth

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Re: Geophagy - the cultural practices of eating soil - common in many sub-Saharan countries?

Yes, that is interesting. At the very least that is telling us that the ascaris helminths are surviving in the soil and can be infectious when the soil is eaten.

It would be quite interesting to know where the soil is taken from for consumption - I assume near the surface (rather than subsurface), because I doubt there would be much movement of the ova through the soil.

But if that is true.. then it would be interesting to study the soil temperatures. In a hot dry climate, the soils might reach the very high temperatures we are told kill the helminths.
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Re: Geophagy - the cultural practices of eating soil - common in many sub-Saharan countries?

PS, those photos are awful. Respect to the medics..
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Re: Geophagy - the cultural practices of eating soil - common in many sub-Saharan countries?

A distinction should be made between eating clay and soil. Clay is commonly consumed in pregnancy. It's high in minerals and cleansing, binding toxins.
www.npr.org/blogs/thesalt/2014/04/02/297...eating-dirt-revealed

Still, plenty of animals eat feces (coprophagy), infusing the gut with probiotics.

Some "hygiene hypothesis" proponents actually promote poor sanitation as a way to balance the immune system. Worms have benefits, too, used in helminth therapy. But to promote poor sanitation isn't really the message. What we really need to promote is diversity and a balance of microbes, so the hygiene hypothesis has been renamed "Old Friends hypothesis".
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Re: Geophagy - the cultural practices of eating soil - common in many sub-Saharan countries?

Why is there any reason to distinguish between clay and soil? Is the ova can survive in soil, they can survive in clay.

The idea that having ascaris worms in your gut is somehow desirable is ridiculous.
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Re: Geophagy - the cultural practices of eating soil - common in many sub-Saharan countries?

Clay is a known antimicrobial used in parasite cleansing including de-worming.

People use hookworms as therapy in gut diseases to regulate the immune system. My theory is worms are vacuuming-up microbial culprits like protozoans and gram-negative bacteria as that's what their tiny mouths are designed to eat. Overgrown, however, worms are thought to consume up to 20% of a child's daily nutritional intake.

Worms are also thought to manufacture vitamin C for the body.
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Re: Geophagy - the cultural practices of eating soil - common in many sub-Saharan countries?

People do infect themselves, but it is a pretty stupid thing to do:

sciencenotes.ucsc.edu/2014/pages/hookworm/hookworm.html

"Most researchers and doctors say it’s still too early for people to safely infect themselves"

It is one thing to do this in a situation where there is good access to advanced medical care, something else altogether in a situation where ascaris is known to cause widespread untreated disease.
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Re: Geophagy - the cultural practices of eating soil - common in many sub-Saharan countries?

I agree, I wouldn't do it even though it's known to work. I've been recently speaking with someone who used worms to cure himself and promotes it. He never did try intensive probiotic therapy, however, using commensal microbes, Bifidobacteria and Lactobacillus, to displace overgrown pathogens (which are also commensal).
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Re: Geophagy - the cultural practices of eating soil - common in many sub-Saharan countries?

Soil-based organisms in the form of SBO probiotics are now hugely popular for health. They have many functions including degrading biofilm and consuming fungi.
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Re: Geophagy - the cultural practices of eating soil - common in many sub-Saharan countries?

Wikipedia also has a page that explains quite well the current status of "helminthic therapy":
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Helminthic_therapy

The first sentence states:
"Helminthic therapy, an experimental type of immunotherapy, is the treatment of autoimmune diseases and immune disorders by means of deliberate infestation with a helminth or with the ova of a helminth."

I have no idea whether this Wikipedia page is accurate or not, I just wanted to mention its existence.

Apart from that I personally think this thread is becoming off-topic now (see Rule number 8 here: forum.susana.org/forum/rules ) as the purpose of this forum is not to discuss all sorts of health hypotheses and alternative treatment methods for all sorts of ailments. There is other discussion forums for that out there. This is my personal opinion.


[End of Page 1 of the discussion thread]

Dr. Elisabeth von Muench
Independent consultant
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