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Letting go of the ‘sirena’ in me (or: Discovering the whale sharks of Oslob, Cebu)…

Swimming with sea creatures like the butanding can be… magical. But protection of nature’s wonders needs to be constantly communicated to us (hammered, even, into our consciousness); in this case, while bringing out the ‘sirena’ in us. Because if not, then our supposedly “win-win” approach to eco-tourism is in dire need of being reconsidered.

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There are two sites in the Philippines that are popularly known to provide people (i.e. tourists) the chance to “interact” with the famed gentle giants of the seas, the whale sharks (i.e. “butanding”) – Donsol, Sorsogon and Oslob, Cebu. And based on personal experience in visits to both sites, there are pros and cons worth considering. These pros and cons, not incidentally, are largely driven by profiteering from a natural wonder…

In Donsol – as we’ve written in the past – profiteering can be seen in treachery (for the lack of a better word). That is, the butanding only visit the small fishing village a few months in a year; but even off-peak, the locals (who have become the tourist guides) will still claim that they can “look” for the giants of the sea with you. This means paying them X amount of money (for the “professional” fees, rent of the bangka, rent of equipment, et cetera) as you basically waste your time looking for what’s not there. If you’re really, really eager to look for the butanding, they ask for more money so you can search again the next days – again, even if they already know that the butanding has long gone.

Whale-less wandering at Donsol, Sorsogon

In Oslob, profiteering can be seen in the “conversion” of the butanding. This place can be likened to an aquarium (or even a “natural” zoo); and the butanding, mere “pets” on leash. Yes, you will see the butanding here for sure, since they hardly ever leave the place. The locals have “tamed” them by incessantly feeding them; this “easy” life sort of forced them to just stay here.

It is, therefore, hard to support – or even promote – this form of eco-tourism.

This is, I suppose, the “tricky” part.

We recognize various facets of the promotion of Oslob as an eco-destination to interact with the butanding.

There’s the providing of employment to the locals (who would otherwise kill the fish for their meat, a source of livelihood for many in the past). Nowadays, it is not uncommon to hear these fishermen-turned-tourist guides as staunch caretakers of the seas’ bounties (butanding included); and hearing them claim that protecting the seas IS a way of protecting the fishermen and their families is (admittedly) heartening…

There’s the issue of the “taming” of the butanding, with animal rights activists right in claiming that this approach is basically ruining natural order. The butanding are wild animals; and with this “arrangement”, they are now turned into “pets” that seem to solely exist for the benefit of those who want to earn from them (and yes, those who pay to see them).

Alas, no, Oslob shows how we have yet to find a “common ground” (if it can be called that). That is, we have yet to really find comprehensive solutions to the issues besetting the fishermen and their families (helmed by their lack of consistent sources of earnings) so that they continue “taming” the butanding (in the guise of giving people the chance to learn more about the need to protect these giants).

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A discussion is, indeed, needed for the “solutions” regarding this to be comprehensive.

In the meantime, for those in Cebu City who are keen to encounter the butanding, here are some must-know points:

  • To go to Oslob, head to South Terminal in Cebu City. There, there are buses heading to Oslob (even as early as 1:00AM), taking from three to four hours (depending on the traffic conditions). Airconditioned bus fare is P165. Note that the “feeding” of the butanding (more on that in a bit) only happens from 6:00AM to 12:30PM, so the earlier you go there, the better it will be for you. We left Cebu City at 2:30AM, and when we arrived in Oslob just after 6:00AM, there were already lots of tourists.
  • Tell the konduktor (in the Philippines, the person who gives the tickets and collects the fare) that you are getting off at BCD’s Resort, which is right beside the registration area for the butanding watching.

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  • When you get off the bus, there is a registration area (the two resorts there can also help here). You go inside and then pay the fees – i.e. P500 for locals (Filipinos) who want to swim with the butanding/P300 for those who will only watch from the bangka and P1,000 for foreigners who want to swim with the whale sharks (the fee includes the bangka ride, flippers and the goggles). You can pay an additional P550 for the bangkero to take your pics while you swim with the whale sharks (the files can be saved into your Android phone, and saved in a CD). If you want to be able to enjoy the experience of swimming with the whale sharks, don’t be stingy and just pay the P550 for the cameraman – they’ve been doing this so long they know how to take good shots, while you basically do nothing but be the sirena you are…
  • You will then be taken to the take-off area, where some educating happens (e.g. that every swim lasts only for 30 minutes, that you to keep your distance from the butanding, not to use chemical-laden sunblock, no splashing in the waters, not to panic when the shark seems to head your way, and so on). As a side note, you can get scratchies while in the waters; so if you’re allergic to bites of se creatures, bring anti-histamine with you…
  • You will then be given your vests, hauled into a bangka, and then the bangkero-cum-photographer paddles only a few meters from the shore. Here, all the bangka loaded with tourists line up. Another bangka passes by all the tourists, with this one’s bangkero incessantly feeding a butanding. It is when this butanding passes by your own bangka that the “interaction” happens, making it – basically – a displaying of an animal on a leash (the “leash” here the food it is given). It’s worth noting that if you want to have beauteous underwater shots, then not using the vests and even the goggles may be worth considering. A friend I was with used both, and now he only has mostly headless shots (since the cameraman was underwater) and pics of someone who could be anyone (people all look the same when wearing the mask) to show off…
  • After 30 minutes, you are told that the interaction is done, told to return to your bangka, and then head back to the shore. THE. SWIM. WITH. THE. BUTANDING. IS. DONE.

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Swimming with sea creatures like the butanding can be… magical. It can give you various insights – e.g. how “small” we all are, even inconsequential in the scheme of things; how beautiful nature can be, perhaps especially if left untouched; and how we continue to be in dire need of education re nature and how we can use it without necessarily destroying it.

But protection of nature’s wonders needs to be constantly communicated to us (hammered, even, into our consciousness); in this case, while bringing out the ‘sirena’ in us. Because if not, then our supposedly “win-win” approach to eco-tourism is in dire need of being reconsidered…

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The founder of Outrage Magazine, Michael David dela Cruz Tan is a graduate of Bachelor of Arts (Communication Studies) of the University of Newcastle in New South Wales, Australia. Though he grew up in Mindanao (particularly Kidapawan and Cotabato City in Maguindanao), even attending Roman Catholic schools there, he "really, really came out in Sydney," he says, so that "I sort of know what it's like to be gay in a developing and a developed world". Mick can: photograph, do artworks with mixed media, write (DUH!), shoot flicks, community organize, facilitate, lecture, research (with pioneering studies under his belt)... this one's a multi-tasker, who is even conversant in Filipino Sign Language (FSL). Among others, Mick received the Catholic Mass Media Awards (CMMA) in 2006 for Best Investigative Journalism. Cross his path is the dare (read: It won't be boring).

Health & Wellness

Trans women can safely maintain estrogen treatments during gender affirming surgery

The practice of withholding estrogen prior to gender affirming surgery was not necessary. Most transgender women can now safely remain on their estrogen therapy throughout surgery.

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There was no difference in blood clots when estrogen hormone therapy was maintained during gender affirming surgery.

This is according to a study (titled, “No Venous Thromboembolism Increase Among Transgender Female Patients Remaining on Estrogen for Gender Affirming Surgery”) helmed by John Henry Pang with Aki Kozato from Mount Sinai, and was published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism.

Historically, the lack of published data contributed to heterogeneity in the practice of whether doctors and surgeons advised transgender women to withhold their estrogen therapy before surgery. The sudden loss of estrogen in the blood was sometimes very uncomfortable with symptoms that amounted to a sudden, severe menopause.

So the researchers tapped 919 transgender patients who underwent gender affirming surgery at Mount Sinai’s Center for Transgender Medicine and Surgery between November 2015 and August 2019. Notably, including 407 cases of transgender women who underwent primary vaginoplasty surgery.

This study found that the practice of withholding estrogen prior to gender affirming surgery was not necessary. Most transgender women can now safely remain on their estrogen therapy throughout surgery.

The bottom line: This study found that most transgender women can  safely maintain their estrogen hormone treatments during gender affirming surgery.

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Health & Wellness

Facebook posts help facilitate belief that HPV vaccine is dangerous to health

Nearly 40% of Facebook posts about the HPV vaccine amplified a perceived risk, and the data suggests these posts had momentum over time.

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The human papillomavirus infection, or HPV, is one of the most common sexually transmitted infections, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). HPV is associated with health problems including genital warts and cancers, but a vaccine has been available since 2006 to help stop the virus. The CDC reports more than 12 years of data supports the HPV vaccine is safe and effective, yet HPV vaccination rates still remain low.

Social media has a history of being a popular place for sexual health discussions, and the HPV vaccine is one of the most discussed vaccines on the internet. Monique Luisi, an assistant professor in the University of Missouri School of Journalism, has studied more than 6,500 public HPV vaccine-related posts on Facebook from 2006 to 2016. In a previous study, Luisi used these Facebook posts to identify a negative trend on Facebook related to how people perceive the HPV vaccine.

Now, she suggests this negative trend on Facebook may also cause people to develop a false perception of the health risk of the vaccine. After looking at the percentage of posts that made the vaccine seem more dangerous, less dangerous or neither, Luisi found nearly 40% of Facebook posts about the HPV vaccine amplified a perceived risk, and the data suggests these posts had momentum over time.

“We should not assume that only the disease is perceived as a risk, but when research supports it, that medical treatments and interventions might unfortunately also be perceived as risks,” she said. “It’s more likely that people are going to see things on social media, particularly on Facebook, that are not only negative about the HPV vaccine, but will also suggest the HPV vaccine could be harmful. It amplifies the fear that people may have about the vaccine, and we see that posts that amplify fear are more likely to trend than those that don’t.”

Luisi suggests the spread of this negative information may lead people to have a false perception of the vaccine, so people should consult their doctor or health care provider before making an informed decision.

“Facebook remains a very popular social media platform for adult audiences, which necessitates action to address HPV vaccine risk messages,” she said. “People are going to see what they are going to see on social media, so it’s important to not only take what you see on social media, but also talk to a doctor or health care provider. Just because it’s trending doesn’t mean it’s true.”

Luisi notes research must continue to address the perception of vaccine safety where the vaccine is perceived as a greater health threat than the virus or disease it prevents, and her study could also inform officials for the ongoing COVID-19 vaccine roll out and distribution.

“As the COVID-19 vaccine is being rolled out, people are likely going to see a lot of negative information, and that negative information will be what trends on social media,” she said. “But, if the public can anticipate this negative information, it will be interesting to see if that will that make them less sensitive to the perceived risk of the vaccine.”

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Health & Wellness

Depression and stress could dampen efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines

Even though rigorous testing has shown that the COVID-19 vaccines approved for distribution are highly effective at producing a robust immune response, not everyone will immediately gain their full benefit. Environmental factors, as well as an individual’s genetics and physical and mental health, can weaken the body’s immune system, slowing the response to a vaccine.

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Decades of research show that depression, stress, loneliness, and poor health behaviors can weaken the body’s immune system and lower the effectiveness of certain vaccines.

A new report accepted for publication in Perspectives on Psychological Science suggests that the same may be true for the new COVID-19 vaccines that are in development and the early stages of global distribution. Fortunately, it may be possible to reduce these negative effects with simple steps like exercise and sleep.

Vaccines are among the safest and most effective advances in medical history, protecting society from a wide range of otherwise devastating diseases, including smallpox and polio. The key to their success, however, is ensuring that a critical percentage of the population is effectively vaccinated to achieve so-called herd immunity.

Even though rigorous testing has shown that the COVID-19 vaccines approved for distribution are highly effective at producing a robust immune response, not everyone will immediately gain their full benefit. Environmental factors, as well as an individual’s genetics and physical and mental health, can weaken the body’s immune system, slowing the response to a vaccine.

This is particularly troubling as the novel coronavirus continues to rage across the world, trigging a concurrent mental health crisis as people deal with isolation, economic stressors, and uncertainty about the future. These challenges are the same factors that have been previously shown to weaken vaccine efficacy, particularly among the elderly.

“In addition to the physical toll of COVID-19, the pandemic has an equally troubling mental health component, causing anxiety and depression, among many other related problems. Emotional stressors like these can affect a person’s immune system, impairing their ability to ward off infections,” said Annelise Madison, a researcher at The Ohio State University and lead author on the paper. “Our new study sheds light on vaccine efficacy and how health behaviors and emotional stressors can alter the body’s ability to develop an immune response. The trouble is that the pandemic in and of itself could be amplifying these risk factors.”

Vaccines work by challenging the immune system. Within hours of a vaccination, there is an innate, general immune response on the cellular level as the body begins to recognize a potential biological threat. This frontline response by the immune system is eventually aided by the production of antibodies, which target specific pathogens. It is the continued production of antibodies that helps to determine how effective a vaccine is at conferring long-term protection.

The good news, according to the researchers, is that the COVID-19 vaccines already in circulation are approximately 95% effective. Even so, these psychological and behavioral factors can lengthen the amount of time it takes to develop immunity and can shorten the duration of immunity.

“The thing that excites me is that some of these factors are modifiable,” said Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, director of the Institute for Behavioral Medicine Research at The Ohio State University and senior author on the paper. “It’s possible to do some simple things to maximize the vaccine’s initial effectiveness.”

Based on prior research, one strategy the researchers suggest is to engage in vigorous exercise and get a good night’s sleep in the 24 hours before vaccination so that your immune system is operating at peak performance. This may help ensure that the best and strongest immune response happens as quickly as possible.

“Prior research suggests that psychological and behavioral interventions can improve vaccine responsiveness. Even shorter-term interventions can be effective,” said Madison. “Therefore, now is the time to identify those at risk for a poor immune response and intervene on these risk factors.”

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Health & Wellness

Bisexual men more prone to eating disorders than gay or straight men – study

80% of bisexual men reported that they “felt fat”, and 77% had a strong desire to lose weight, both figures higher than the 79% and 75% for gay men, respectively.

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Bisexual men are more likely to experience eating disorders than either heterosexual or gay men. This is according to a report from the University of California San Francisco, published in the journal Eating and Weight Disorders.

A handful of studies have actually indicated that gay men are at increased risk for disordered eating, including fasting, excessive exercise and preoccupation with weight and body shape. This newer study, however, suggests that bisexual men are even more susceptible to some unhealthy habits.

For this study, the researchers surveyed over 4,500 LGBTQ adults, and a quarter of the bisexual male participants reported having fasted for more than eight hours to influence their weight or appearance. This is higher when compared to 20% for gay men.

The research also found that 80% of bisexual men reported that they “felt fat”, and 77% had a strong desire to lose weight, both figures higher than the 79% and 75% for gay men, respectively.

Now this is worth stressing: According to study co-author Dr. Jason Nagata, not everyone who diets or feels fat has an eating disorder. “It’s a spectrum — from some amount of concern to a tipping point where it becomes a pathological obsession about body weight and appearance,”Nagata was quoted as saying by NBC News.

For Nagata, several factors may be at play here, including “minority stress” (the concept that the heightened anxiety faced by marginalized groups can manifest as poor mental and physical health outcomes).

“LGBTQ people experience stigma and discrimination, and stressors can definitely lead to disordered eating,” Nagata was also quoted as saying. “For bi men, they’re not just facing stigma from the straight community but from the gay community, as well.”

Of all the respondents, 3.2% of bisexual males were clinically diagnosed with eating disorders (compared to 2.9% of gay men). For heterosexual men, it’s only 0.6%.

For the researchers, there is a need to conduct eating disorder research on various sexual identities independently. This is also to raise awareness on this issue (and how it affects different people of various SOGIESCs).

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Lifestyle & Culture

There is no silver bullet to lockdown blues, but…

There is never a magic bullet to our concerns. But we can find solutions that work for us and stick to them while in this very confusing and concerning lockdown world.

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Millions of people won’t be afraid to admit, they are hurting in lockdown. It’s not something that they have coped with well and don’t seem to be improving either. It’s harsh, very tough and daunting to be alone in the lockdown, not being able to have human contact or even talk to people, face to face. It’s not something anyone expected and thus didn’t prepare for. How could you, right?

So, depression and anxieties have led to lockdown blues. The root cause of most of our mental anguish is, not being able to live a normal life. But, there isn’t a silver bullet to this concern. In fact, most of us need to look at more nuanced cures to our ills. Let’s explore what our options are.

Sharing your blues

Lockdown blues have been felt all around the world. Whether you’re in Singapore, Malaysia, America, Italy or in the UK, millions of people are talking about what makes them cope or stressed in the day. This has been spreading on social media with hashtags such as ‘LonelyLockdown’ and ‘BeKind’. However, various message boards where you can anonymously speak about the things that are making you feel down are popular too.

It seems that the best way to get rid of the blues, at least for some people, is to let it out as it comes along. Don’t hold onto your worries, let them go by talking about them. You might be worried about your job, health, home, family, and friends to name a few. Start to talk about what is upsetting you and why. Please don’t bottle it up!

All for one
Do you ever feel like everything is getting too much and you just want a little rest bite? You just want all the stress and worry to halt for just one second. Many people believe that the only way they can do this is by taking something that numbs the pain or allows them to forget for a minute. Substance abuse is not something that should ever be entertained but if you do fall into the trap or relying on something like this, then support is never too far.

Read this American Addiction Centers review and see how they can help you. They have group therapy sessions as well as individual therapy sessions. The group therapy is very well-liked because they are very honest yet very understanding. That’s something that allows people to open up and let their feelings fly. Feelings of shame, disappointment and vitriol for the situation are very common and dealt with.

IMAGE SOURCE: PIXABAY.COM

Zen machine

Sometimes the best solutions are free. If you feel like life is getting on top of you right now, taking up online yoga or meditation classes could be your saving grace. Actually, for millions of people, since lockdown, having Zoom yoga meet-ups has been the silver bullet. If you would like to join in or find a club, go online and search for a zoom yoga club in your state or city.

There is never a magic bullet to our concerns. But we can find solutions that work for us and stick to them while in this very confusing and concerning lockdown world.  

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Love Affairs

Dating apps don’t destroy love

Contrary to earlier concerns, a UNIGE study has shown that people who met their partners on dating applications have often stronger long-term relationship goals, and that these new ways of meeting people encourage socio-educational and geographical mixing.

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As dating apps escalated in popularity, so has criticism about them encouraging casual dating only, threatening the existence of long-term commitment, and possibly damaging the quality of intimacy. There is no scientific evidence, however, to validate these claims.

Now a study by the University of Geneva (UNIGE), Switzerland – and which was published in the journal PLOS ONE – indicates that app-formed couples have stronger cohabitation intentions than couples who meet in a non-digital environment.

What is more, women who found their partner through a dating app have stronger desires and intentions to have children than those who found their partner offline. Despite fears concerning a deterioration in the quality of relationships, partners who met on dating apps express the same level of satisfaction about their relationship as others.

Last but not least, the study shows that these apps play an important role in modifying the composition of couples by allowing for more educationally diverse and geographically distant couples.

“The Internet is profoundly transforming the dynamics of how people meet,” confirms Gina Potarca, a researcher at the Institute of Demography and Socioeconomics in UNIGE’s Faculty of Social Sciences. “It provides an unprecedented abundance of meeting opportunities, and involves minimal effort and no third-party intervention.”

These new dating technologies include the smartphone apps like Tinder or Grindr, where users select partners by browsing and swiping on pictures. These apps, however, have raised fears: “Large parts of the media claim they have a negative impact on the quality of relationships since they render people incapable of investing in an exclusive or long-term relationship. Up to now, though, there has been no evidence to prove this is the case,” continues Dr. Potarca.

Facilitated encounters

The Geneva-based researcher decided to investigate couples’ intentions to start a family, their relationship satisfaction and individual well-being, as well as to assess couple composition. Dr. Potarca used a 2018 family survey by the Swiss Federal Statistical Office. The analysis presented in this study looks at a sub-sample of 3,235 people over the age of 18 who were in a relationship and who had met their partner in the last decade.

Dr. Potarca found that dating websites – the digital tools for meeting partners that preceded apps – mainly attracted people over the age of 40 and / or divorcees who are looking for romance.

“By eliminating lengthy questionnaires, self-descriptions, and personality tests that users of dating websites typically need to fill in to create a profile, dating apps are much easier to use. This normalized the act of dating online, and opened up use among younger categories of the population.”

Searching for a lasting relationship

Dr. Potarca sought to find out whether couples who met on dating apps had different intentions to form a family. The results show that couples that formed after meeting on an app were more motivated by the idea of cohabiting than others.

“The study doesn’t say whether their final intention was to live together for the long- or short-term, but given that there’s no difference in the intention to marry, and that marriage is still a central institution in Switzerland, some of these couples likely see cohabitation as a trial period prior to marriage. It’s a pragmatic approach in a country where the divorce rate is consistently around 40%.”

In addition, women in couples that formed through dating apps mentioned wanting and planning to have a child in the near future, more so than with any other way of meeting.

But what do couples who met in this way think about the quality of their relationship? The study shows that, regardless of meeting context, couples are equally satisfied with their lives and the quality of their relationship.

Couples with a diverse socio-educational profile

The study highlights a final aspect. Dating apps encourage a mixing of different levels of education, especially between high-educated women and lower educated men. Partners having more diversified socio-educational profiles “may have to do with selection methods that focus mainly on the visual,” says the researcher. Since users can easily connect with partners in their immediate region (but also in other spaces as they move around), the apps make it easier to meet people more than 30 minutes away – leading to an increase in long-distance relationships.

“Knowing that dating apps have likely become even more popular during this year’s periods of lockdown and social distancing, it is reassuring to dismiss alarming concerns about the long-term effects of using these tools,” concludes Dr. Potarca.

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