Aflatoxin – A silent killer

kenkeyA media report that “kenkey causes cancer” dented the national meal some years back to draw attention to the fact that aflatoxins are silent killers.

The Food Research Institute (FRI) of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) tried to create awareness about these toxins, but due to the inappropriate media report on the issue the efforts did not yield the desired results.

Aflatoxins are a group of toxic compounds produced by fungi, which contaminate stored crops due to heat, humidity and the activities of insects and rodents.

Its appearance on maize and other stable cereals is often not visible but undermine human health, stunts the growth of children and is becoming a major health hazard in Africa.

The toxic substances found in improperly stored foods such as corn, wheat, nuts, peanut butter and dried fruits , are known to be causative factors in the stunted growth of children, child mortality, immune suppression and child neurological impairment, in addition to causing household food insecurity.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), it has a synergistic effect with the hepatitis B virus in the etiology of liver cancer and could interact with HIV and AIDS.

WHO says exposure to high levels of aflatoxins causes acute aflatoxicosis, which is often under-recognised and under-reported as a cause of liver damage, to merit concrete measures to control them.

Aflatoxins have become a health problem rooted in the entire food chain, thus requiring a multi-disciplinary approach to combat the menace.

Not only has it been a health threat, but also exert enormous economic toll on affected countries on the African Continent.

A recent World Bank study noted that the European Union regulation on Aflatoxins costs Africa $750 million each year in export of cereals, dried fruit and nuts.

Besides, aflatoxins are also non-tariff barriers to international trade since agricultural products that have more than permissible levels of contamination are rejected in the global market.

Though losses faced by the global economy are estimated at $1.2billion, African economies lose about $450milion annually to aflatoxin contamination.

Mr George A. Anyebuno Research Scientist of FRI in an interview with the Ghana News Agency said aflatoxins are still as relevant in the country as they have been over the years.

He explained that unacceptable levels of the toxins have been found in a variety of samples analysed over the past three years. The highest contaminations have been with maize and groundnuts and the samples include raw and processed food commodities.

Mr Anyebuno attributed the cause of aflatoxins to drought conditions leading to field contamination, explaining that high moisture content of products with content of 13 per cent is adequate to keep the fungi at bay.

The high relative humidity and high temperatures in Ghana as well as the tropical conditions are very favourable for the growth of the aflatoxigenic moulds.

Inappropriate cultural practices by farmers especially those who engage in wrong harvesting methods, poor storage conditions and inadequate drying of grains could lead to contamination.

Mr Anyebuno says there has been inadequate publicity on the subject matter even though concern for the toxins has increased with time.

“In fact, aflatoxins have become major barriers in international trade due to public health concern and the series of national and international conferences on mycotoxins in Ghana to address the aflatoxin problem.

“The major intervention in the control of aflatoxins is to deny the aflatoxigenic fungi from gaining access to food commodities by making moisture less and less available for them to grow. Quick and effective drying will greatly reduce the incidence of contamination by these fungi,” he said.

Contaminated maize or peanut used for food has the potential of causing cancer while individuals have different tolerant levels for different contaminants.

In a bid to control aflatoxins, SEND- GHANA, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) with Southern Africa Trust another NGO, initiated a project to address the problem.

The project on the theme: ‘Deepening Linkages between Research, Advocacy and Media Practitioners in Ghana for Greater Policy Influence and Impact,” is being implemented in Ghana, Tanzania, South Africa, Malawi, Kenya and Uganda, with financial support from Southern Africa Trust through Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

In Ghana, the aflatoxin project is being handled by Ecumenical Association for Sustainable Agriculture and Rural Development (ECASARD), FRI whilst the media is being represented by Ghana News Agency.

The project site is Techiman in the Brong Ahafo Region.

ECARSAD has been holding advocacy programme to educate rural farmers on aflatoxin and how best to prevent its contamination of maize and other cereals.

Dr King David Amoah, National President of Farmer’s Organisation Network (FONG) and President of ECASARD, said farmers’ organisations such as the Ghana National Farmers Association, FONG, Peasant Farmers Association of Ghana, and the Ghana Federation of Agricultural Producers are networking to help educate maize farmers on aflatoxin.

Aflatoxin contamination has wide ranging impact on health, trade and food security throughout Africa.

Prevention and control of aflatoxin requires a comprehensive, systematic approach, involving a broad range of stakeholders in Ghana, Africa and globally.

Governments, private companies, farmers’ organisations, research organisations, international institutions, donors, civil society organisations, are investing in and implementing key elements of solutions to better manage aflatoxin in Africa.

WHO needs to engage national governments to recognise exposure to Aflatoxins as a major public health issue; incorporate prevention and control of exposure to Aflatoxins in health, agricultural and social development policies and provide technical advice to establish early warning systems on the condition.

Governments must incorporate surveillance for the condition in WHO Foodborne Disease Surveillance and the Integrated Disease Surveillance Systems and facilitate greater interaction with UN and other agencies for prevention and improved management of outbreak.

WHO  must strengthen health laboratories to include Aflatoxin capacity, and reflect Aflatoxin concerns in guidelines for Integrated Management of Childhood Illness and Integrated Management of Adult Diseases, as well as diets for pregnant/lactating women, infants and young children.

With maize as a  major staple food in Ghana and Africa, fighting aflatoxins require a critical consideration on its devastating effect.

This call for concerted efforts from stakeholders and a strong leadership in the fight against the problem. Nobody should eat maize and other cereals and die from  aflatoxin related diseases. It can be done and Ghana must take the lead.

By Linda Asante Agyei
Source: GNA

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