Maize is one crop affected
“There is a direct correlation between growth and development in young children and their ability to resist and recover from diseases,” says Kitty F. Cardwell, one of the researchers.
“This study is significant because it illustrates that there may be a hidden factor, a food-borne toxin, affecting the growth and development of children in Africa.”
Aflatoxins are by-products of the fungus Aspergillus, and are commonly found in crops such as maize, peanuts and rice, as well as milk products from cattle that have consumed contaminated feed. Studies on animals show that they are carcinogenic, have adverse effects on the immune system, and retard growth.
In the most recent study — published in the British Medical Journal earlier this month — scientists from the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture, the University of Leeds, and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, measured aflatoxin levels in nearly 500 children aged between 9 months and 5 years.
They found aflatoxins in blood samples from 99 per cent of the children, and analysis showed that increased levels were associated with below average height and weight, both of which are indicative of malnutrition. Aflatoxin levels were significantly higher in children being weaned rather than partially breast-fed.
“We are really concerned about the high levels of exposure of young African children to this potent toxin, especially once they are weaned onto solid foods,“ says Christopher Wild, a molecular epidemiologist at the University of Leeds.
“The toxin may contribute to children being more susceptible to the very many common infectious diseases which are a major cause of deaths in children in these communities”.
The scientists point out the need to investigate whether the impaired growth shown by these children is a direct result of aflatoxin toxicity, or reflects the consumption of fungus-affected food which is of poor nutritional quality. They also emphasise the need to develop strategies to reduce exposure to aflatoxins.
“The levels of aflatoxin that these children are being exposed to are much higher than those that are considered safe anywhere in the world,” says Cardwell. “This is a public health issue that can be dealt with through agricultural technology to give African children a better chance to grow up healthy and strong.”
Link to BMJ paper
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Photo credit: CGIAR/CIMMYT