By Onche Odeh
Experts meeting on Mycotoxinfood poisoning in Osogbo, Osun State in South Western Nigeria have pointed out that some of the cases of infertility recorded among Nigerian men may be the direct consequence of consumption of food contaminated with the poisonous fungal secretion. This comes amid concerns by food and agriculture experts that aflatoxin, a group of secondary metabolites produced by somespecies of fungal genus Aspergillus,in farm, during transit or in store a substance secreted by moulds, has become amajor cause for health concern in Nigeria and other countries in sub-Sahara Africa. A similar record from the United States of America Centre for Diseases Control (CDC) says that 4.5 billion people in developing countries are exposed to it. The risk becomes even higher as agency also pointed out that 25 per cent of world agricultural produces are infected with the fungi that produce the poisonous substance. A 2001 study on the ‘Impact of Aflatoxin on Human Reproduction’ by Nduka Uriah, Isaiah N. Ibeh and Flora Oluwafemi showed that about 37 per cent of infertile men in Nigeria had high aflatoxin levels in their blood and semen far above the permissible limits. The study, which was reported in the African Journal of Reproductive Health,buttresses earliers one that found high levels of the substance in sera (Denning et al,1988) and urine (Bean et al, 1989) of Nigerian men. A related study by Professor Dele Fapohunda, Past President of the Mycotoxicology Society of Nigeria also found sperm abnormalities expressed in albino rats, highlighting the many health effects of Aflatoxin on humans and animals. Fapohunda who is also Dean,College of Natural and Applied Sciences, Fountain University, Osogbo, chronicled some of these in a paper presented during a meeting of experts on Mycotoxins. He disclosed that the livestock sub-sector is more affected by aflatoxin poisoning, with incidences manifesting in the form of “reduced feed intake,nervousness, abortions, kidney and liver damage, poor gut immunity, intestinal damage, high mortality and increased carcass condemnation.” The history of aflatoxin poisoning in Nigeria as disclosed during the meeting shows that in 1961, scientists in the country’s Stored Products Research Institute and Institute of Agricultural Research (IAR),Zaria with the assistance of the Tropical Products Research Institute, London established that groundnuts in the North were susceptible to aflatoxin contamination. “In 1988, some primary school pupils died in Ibadan, and this was traced to their consumption of aflatoxin – contaminated ground nut cake called ‘kulikuli,” Fapohunda disclosed in his presentation. In further revelation of how aflatoxin has ravaged the country’s population, Fapohunda stated that “posthumous autopsy of some children suffering from kwashiorkor revealed significant levels of aflatoxin in their brains.” This, he said was equally traced in a study to the consumption of contaminated maize–based gruel regularly fed infants in Nigeria. “Aflatoxin is implicated in child stunting, child mortality, immune suppression and child neurological impairment,” he noted. According to him, the Globocan2008 report launched by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, an arm of the WHO reported that in 2008 liver cancer in sub-Saharan Africa accounted for 43, 345 deaths, which is about 10.3 per cent of the total mortality attributable to cancer. “Not a few of this may be traceable to aflatoxin consumption,” he said. He said, “aflatoxins have been isolated from all major cereal crops, and other sources like peanut butter and marijuana.” The staple commodities, which he said are regularly contaminated with aflatoxins include cassava, corn, cotton seed, millet, peanuts, rice, sorghum, sunflowerseeds, tree nuts, wheat, soybean, beans and a variety of spices intended for human or animal food use, as well as milk and milk products. Asa step toward increasing awareness on aflatoxinin mouldy food and feed, Fapohunda has suggested setting aside a day each year,by the United Nations, in recognition of the established dangers of dietary aflatoxin on vital organs of man and livestock. Fapohunda said that the consumption of aflatoxin-contaminated meals is a form of malnutrition, which is in itself an index of poverty, stressing that the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC ) an arm of the WHO, hadearlier placed aflatoxin B1 on the list of human carcinogens. Dr Ranajit Bandyophadyay of IITA, and Miss Angela Stene of Abt Associates, USA also told the one-day seminar and interactive session with farmers,academia, industry , regulatory agencies, civil service and other stakeholders aboutthe various health and economic impacts of mouldy food items were also emphasized. “A World Bank study revealed that the European Union regulations on aflatoxins cost Africa 750 million dollars each year in export of cereals, dried fruits and nuts through reduced export value, rejects and trade bans,” Fapohunda disclosed. He said producers and exporters of agricultural products in developing countries are not always aware of the public health risks of these chemicals, nor of related quality requirements and health regulations in importing countries. Meanwhile,the European Union (EU) has put in place the Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF) and harsh measures to punish repeat offenders. Meanwhile,the meeting of experts, farmers andother stakeholders also observed with concerns, the constant rejection of some Nigerian export products like groundnut and melon by the EU countries strictly based on unacceptable levels of aflatoxin. As a result, the session agreed to regularly meet and exchange ideas with crop and livestock farmers. A major resolution from that meeting is that a new intervention approach, involving a process of “fungus fight”, a biological control procedures, that have been demonstrated would be employed. The process involved the deployment of non- toxigenic strains of Aspergillus flavus outcompeting the unwanted toxic producing strain, was promising in addressing pre-harvest aflatoxin menace. The product, aflasafe, was exhibited to farmers and other participants.