UGANDA – Aflatoxins, insidious fungal toxins contaminating everyday agricultural staples, have been linked to a staggering surge in liver cancer cases in Uganda.

Members of Parliament, alarmed by the gravity of the situation, have called upon the Health Ministry and the Uganda Cancer Institute (UCI) to devise practical solutions to curb this burgeoning threat.

In a recent parliamentary session, the deputy Chairperson of Parliament’s Health Committee, Mr. Samuel Acuti Opio, voiced concerns over the lack of robust campaigns to educate the public about aflatoxins.

These toxins, prevalent in foods like maize, fruits, milk, and eggs, pose a significant risk, particularly to children.

Mr. Opio emphasized the urgent need for action, pointing out the alarming disconnect between existing research data on aflatoxins and the inadequate preventive measures in place, according to MONITOR.

Addressing the parliamentarians’ concerns, State Minister for Primary Healthcare, Ms. Margaret Muhanga, revealed a chilling statistic: aflatoxins are nearly responsible for one in four cases of liver cancer, currently the seventh-ranking cancer in Uganda.

The UCI witnesses an annual influx of 170 to 200 liver cancer cases, with an estimated 48 to 56 cases attributed to aflatoxin exposure. The situation has reached a critical point, demanding urgent and decisive action.

In response to the crisis, officials from the Health Ministry and UCI are gearing up to initiate widespread sensitization campaigns.

These campaigns aim to inform the public about aflatoxin contamination, its dire consequences, and practical measures to minimize exposure.

Additionally, there is a pressing need for intensified research efforts to develop innovative solutions for aflatoxin management and prevention.

Early this year, scientists at the National Agricultural Research Organization (NARO) found that maize, sorghum, and groundnuts in Uganda had aflatoxin concentrations that are 10 times or greater than the safety level advised by the World Health Organization (WHO).

According to Dr. Godfrey Asea, the Director of Research at the National Crops Resources Research Institute (NaCRRI), grains they looked at in various regions of the nation included 100 to 1,000 parts per billion (ppb) more than what was advised, posing a cancer risk to consumers.

Aflatoxin echoes a global concern

The aflatoxin challenge faced by Uganda is not unique; it echoes a global concern. Countries worldwide battle the silent threat of these toxins.

Internationally, Aflatoxins pose a significant economic burden, which according to WHO 2018 report, causes an estimated 25% or more of the world’s food crop loss, consequently contributing to hunger.

They are a type of mycotoxin produced by Aspergillus species of fungi, such as A. flavus and A. parasiticus. The umbrella term aflatoxin refers to four different types of mycotoxins produced, which are B1, B2, G1, and G2.

Research by the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation (KALRO) established that aflatoxins, found in common cereals like maize and wheat, are becoming a major burden on Kenya’s health care system due to their link to cancer.

Earlier in 2021, a review paper titled: The Scourge of Aflatoxins in Kenya: A 60-Year Review (1960 to 2020) published in the Journal of Food Quality by Timothy Omara and nine others concluded that aflatoxins exposure is ubiquitous in Kenya, and that different commodities have relatively high levels of it.

In Tanzania, the government through Tanzania Initiatives for Preventing Aflatoxin Contamination (TANIPAC) project is implementing the construction of modern silos, warehouses, and laboratories as the country makes significant strides in the fight against aflatoxin in food crops.

Meanwhile in Nigeria, the Country-led Situation Analysis and Action Planning (C-SAAP) study commissioned by AUC-PACA in 2016 revealed that about “one-third (31per cent) of maize and as much as 51per cent of groundnut kernels intended for human consumption in Nigeria contained unsafe levels of aflatoxins that exceeded the EU regulatory limit of 4 ppb.”

To this end, the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) partnered with the federal government of Nigeria last year in a bid to curtail the aflatoxin menace.

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