Exposure to aflatoxins that contaminate crops in developing countries can be reduced by a simple, cost-effective intervention

Exposure to a cancer-causing toxin that contaminates crops in developing countries can be reduced by a simple, cost-effective intervention on post-harvest storage, concludes a study in this week’s issue of The Lancet.

Staple foods in West Africa and other parts of the developing world are frequently contaminated with aflatoxins, which are a product of Aspergillus fungi. Aflatoxins are associated with an increased risk of liver cancer - a cancer accounting for one fifth of all cancers in West African men - and impaired growth in young children. Aflatoxin contamination of foods is particularly severe when crops are stored for long periods of time, where excessive heat, humidity, insect and rodent damage can result in proliferation and spread of fungal spores.

Chris Wild (University of Leeds, UK) and colleagues introduced a simple packaged intervention to improve storage of groundnuts among farmers in a rural area of Guinea, West Africa. Farms from twenty villages were included in the study - half had the intervention and half followed usual post-harvest practices. The intervention package consisted of six simple measures, including hand sorting to identify groundnuts that were mouldy, sun drying on mats instead of the ground, storage of crops in natural fibre bags and on wooden pallets, as well as the use of small quantities of insecticide on the floor of the storage facility. In each village the researchers randomly recruited fifteen families that were farmers growing groundnuts and eating from the communal family meal. These 600 individuals had their blood aflatoxin levels measured at harvest time and at three months and five months postharvest. Exposure was more than halved five months post-harvest in individuals from the intervention villages. Almost 20% of individuals in the intervention villages had undetectable aflatoxin levels compared with only 2% of individuals in the control villages at the end of the study.

Professor Wild states: “The effectiveness of this intervention implies that significant reductions in the disease burden related to this potent environmental toxin can be achieved by using a low technology approach at the subsistence farm level in sub-Saharan Africa.”

http://www.thelancet.com

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