Researchers link aflatoxins to rising cancer cases in Kenya

KENYA – Researchers in Kenya have 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.

Aflatoxins are a naturally occurring carcinogenic byproduct of common fungi on grains and other crops, particularly maize and groundnuts. The best-known one is Aspergillus flavus, that attacks crops both in the field and in storage when they are not dried and stored properly.

Aflatoxins lower the body’s immunity and cause permanent and irreversible stunting in children. In cases of acute poisoning, they can lead to instant death. However, in cases of long-time exposure, they are known to provoke liver cancer.

The research conducted by James Kibugu of the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation (KALRO) and four others was published in the African Journal of Food, Agriculture, Nutrition and Development.

According to the paper, common cereals like maize and wheat have total aflatoxin levels higher than Kenyan, USA, and EU standards, indicating a laxity in standards enforcement.

As a result, lifetime consumption of these cereals leads to “high additional risk for primary liver cancer, associated with dietary aflatoxin.”

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.

Omara and his co-authors argue that the spread of aflatoxins in Kenya could be linked to poor agronomic methods, low education levels, insufficient statutory regulation, and lack of awareness among citizens.

This is exacerbated by the fact that maize is Kenya’s staple food hence a lack of diet diversification. Omara advises that it is necessary to diversify one’s diet.

Mitigation measures

It has also been established that rapid and proper drying, proper transportation, and packaging, as well as sorting can help in reducing aflatoxin levels, as reported by Business Daily.

Other mitigation measures are washing, drying, fumigation, post-harvest insect control, and the use of botanicals or synthetic pesticides as storage protectants.

Climate change is proving to be a problem as well rendering the traditional ground-based drying ineffective. The temperature swings can further increase the level of aflatoxins.

According to the research, there are limited commercial products that can be used to offer risk mitigation to the contaminated crops. The available ones do not guarantee full eradication, but only a percentage promise.

As such, the study recommends controlled drying processes to guarantee safety of grains.

New research also reveals that emerging experimental treatments such as, radiation and light treatment, thermal pressure, and plain chemical agents have not been proven effective outside the controlled lab environments.

“Illicit market practices complicate matters because produce declared unfit for human consumption can be diverted by unscrupulous traders into the animal feed chain, bringing contamination to our tables in other products like meat, poultry or even milk to cite a few,” reports the study.

In a bid to curb the menace, industry players such as the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) and the Eastern Africa Grain Council (EAGC) have signed an agreement to work together to tackle aflatoxin contamination of grains in the region.

The MoU leverages each organization’s comparative advantage to promote mutually beneficial cooperation in the areas of advocacy, research, capacity development, and awareness creation.

In addition, the partnership will promote best practices and use of proven technologies to ensure the grains produced are safe for human and livestock consumption and meet export standards.

One of the technologies to be utilized under the initiative is promoting the use of Aflasafe, an innovative, safe and natural product that drastically reduces aflatoxin contamination in maize and groundnuts as part of an integrated aflatoxin management strategy.

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