Prevalence of aflatoxin understated

Aflatoxin may be a technical sounding name but its effects are all over our stores and dinner tables. Since it is a tasteless and odourless poison, aflatoxin has in the past crept into dinner tables unannounced through contaminated grains.

In 2004, 125 Kenyans died because of consuming aflatoxin-infested food. Six years later in 2010, the government issued a public safety alert after finding that aflatoxins in maize in eastern Kenya and the coastal region were above tolerable levels.

Although there has been no such recent alerts or visible mayhem comparable to the 125 deaths in 2004, aflatoxin remains a real threat to Kenyans in arguably more potent ways. When animals and birds consume feed that is contaminated by aflatoxin, the milk, meat and eggs they produce remain a deadly conduit for the toxins to enter into millions of people who consume these products.

Last year, scientists from the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) revealed that there were high levels of aflatoxin in maize and sorghum flours plus milk fed to children. The researchers further revealed that according to another study, 99 per cent of pasteurised milk had tested positive with aflatoxin. Such test results should be just as worrying as positive HIV tests because food containing aflatoxin ends up becoming akin to seeds of cancer.

Health CS Cleopa Mailu recently noted that; ‘Aflatoxin, also a carcinogen, is one of the risk factors responsible for the worrying rise in cancers in the country.’

The Meru County Health Executive William Muraah also echoed this sentiment by stating that 15 per cent of patients seeking radiation therapy treatment at Kenyatta National Hospital in Nairobi were from the county. He attributed this to aflatoxin; ‘storing of grains in wet conditions leads to formation of aflatoxin, which in turn causes cancer.’

This link between aflatoxin and cancer is grave enough to warrant a well-guided government policy on implementation of available research findings as we tackle aflatoxin decisively. Just to note, in the US, Sh60 billion is spent annually on aflatoxin testing and regulation.

Aflatoxin is caused by a host of factors that start from the forthcoming pre-planting phase, to the post-harvest phase. Primarily, lack of crop rotation interferes with soil nutrients and increases susceptibility to aflatoxin contamination.

After planting susceptibility is worsened through lack of weeding, water scarcity during growth of the plants and inadequate application of pesticides. After harvest of grains, aflatoxins can flourish through both improper drying and improper storage. Does the populace know this?

In light of all these factors that may cause cancer, it is critical for all of us to passionately help farmers to address these concerns. That way, we as a country will divert the massive resources disbursed on health matters into the sustainable development agenda.

Think green, act green!