The Reporter
ssue 492, 29 September 2003
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Helping farmers fight toxic 'killer' harvests


Chris WildSimple changes in farming methods could prevent large numbers of childhood deaths in the developing world from diseases like malaria, diarrhoea, hepatitis B and liver cancer, a Leeds professor has found.

Professor Chris Wild (pictured left) believes that changing how crops are dried and stored could help reduce the spread of a fungus that produces a food toxin called aflatoxin. Working with scientists and farmers in Benin and Togo and colleagues in the University’s molecular epidemiology unit, he discovered that childhood exposure to aflatoxin was linked to impaired growth, a widespread problem in these countries, which makes children more susceptible to disease.

The fungus which produces aflatoxin grows on crops like maize and peanuts when they are stored for long periods in hot climates. As these foods are staples in West Africa, there is no way of escaping exposure to the toxin.

Professor Wild's work, published recently in the British Medical Journal and International Journal of Epidemiology, found that exposure to aflatoxin increased significantly when children are weaned off breast milk and onto solid foods, a critical time for development and growth.

Professor Wild said: "Almost half the children born in parts of West Africa die before the age of five. While the high child mortality rate can't be attributed to aflatoxin alone, its impact appears significant. These children are consuming higher levels of this powerful toxin than is permitted for cattle in the European Union. If the toxin level can be reduced through simple changes in farming methods, then it could have a significant impact in increasing childhood resistance to disease."

Mamadou Diallo, who collaborates with Chris Wild, talks with mothers and children in a market in Guinea, West Africa

Making food safer – Mamadou Diallo (above), who collaborates with Chris Wild, talks with local mothers and their children at a market near Kindia in Guinea, West Africa

By thorough drying of crops on mats in the sun, followed by storage in natural fibre bags rather than plastic, and laying these bags above the ground on wooden palettes, Professor Wild believes aflatoxin levels would drop. He is currently working with local scientists and farmers in Guinea, West Africa to evaluate the impact of these changes

"These changes offer a very low cost and sustainable way to help fight disease and childhood mortality," said Professor Wild.

The study was funded by the USA National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.



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