An article in SciDev.Net by Esther Nakkazi reports on the recent opening of a new laboratory and biopesticide processing plant in Kenya. The two facilities will help research, monitor and control aflatoxin contamination in staple crops.
Aflatoxins present both acute and chronic health effects. Acute exposure to very high levels of aflatoxins can be fatal, as has happened in Kenya in recent years. The most severe outbreak of aflatoxicosis ever reported in Kenya occurred in 2004 in Eastern Province, resulting in 317 cases of illness and 125 deaths.
Chronic exposure to low levels of aflatoxins has been linked to liver cancer, which is estimated to lead to as many as 26,000 deaths annually in sub-Saharan Africa.
Aflatoxins in contaminated animal feed can end up in milk, meat and eggs. Infants are also at risk as aflatoxins can be passed in breast milk, and in utero via the umbilical cord. Exposure to aflatoxins has been associated with stunting in children, as well as suppression of the immune system.
The infographic below gives a pictorial representation of the flow of aflatoxins in the food chain.
The study aimed at assessing aflatoxin exposure throughout the entire country. Most of the previous outbreaks of aflatoxicosis in Kenya occurred in Kenya’s Eastern Province, but since there is no national aflatoxin surveillance, it was not known if aflatoxicosis outbreaks were limited to that region or if they occur in other regions of the country. The study also sought to find out if aflatoxin exposure varied by demographic, socioeconomic and ecological factors.
From analysis of aflatoxin levels in serum specimens from the 2007 Kenya AIDS Indicator survey — a nationally representative, cross-sectional survey — aflatoxin B1 was detected in 78% of the specimens.
Aflatoxin exposure did not vary by sex, age group, religion, marital status or socioeconomic characteristics. However, exposure to aflatoxin varied by province, with the highest levels recorded in Eastern and Coast provinces and the lowest in Nyanza and Rift Valley provinces.
The bottom line is that human exposure to aflatoxin across Kenya can be considered to be a public health problem, in light of the widespread exposure levels that cut across the spectrum of age, sex and socioeconomic status. All the more reason for increased education and awareness on this public health risk and the practical steps that can be taken to control it.