In Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, and parts of Asia, children are likely to be stunted due to consumption of food contaminated with mycotoxins, according to a review of scientific evidence conducted by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) of the World Health Organization. The report by the IARC working group, of which University of Maryland School of Public Health assistant professor Dr. Paul C. Turner is a member, found that the fungal toxins aflatoxin and fumonisin, which contaminate peanuts, corn, and other food staples, significantly reduce child height and weight independent of more traditional causes of stunting.
“Across the world, the growth of more than 160 million children is stunted, which is an enormous problem and affects them throughout their lives,” Dr. Turner said. “We need a coordinated, international effort to reduce mycotoxin contamination in the food supply, so that we can help ensure the healthy development of children in some of the world’s most vulnerable populations.”
Mycotoxins are naturally occurring, pervasive toxins, which at high levels cause acute toxicity, including death, while chronic aflatoxin exposures have long been known as a cause of liver cancer in humans. In developed countries, strict standards and significant economic commitment limit many of these toxins to very low levels in the food supply. In developing countries, people are exposed to mycotoxins on a daily basis through consumption of peanuts, cassava, corn, and other foods typical to regional diets. Additionally, farmers in low-income countries often sell their highest-quality food for export, leaving food with high toxicity levels available for local consumption.
Dr. Turner and colleagues generated seminal papers on the role of aflatoxins in growth faltering in West Africa, research that directly influenced the creation of this IARC workshop. In the context of these high-risk regions, poor growth is critical beyond simple height in that it strongly promotes susceptibility to infectious disease, and thus presents as a significant global public health concern beyond stunting.
The IARC Working Group assessed 15 interventions to reduce the level of mycotoxins in the food supply that could be effective in low-income countries and identified four strategies that warrant implementation, again with intervention approaches contributed by Dr. Turner and colleagues. The four recommended interventions ranged from diet diversity to sorting of the crop.
“The IARC Working Group Report’s recommendations provide a reliable foundation for investment of public, nongovernmental organization, and private funds to tackle this neglected problem,” Dr. Sindura Ganapathi of the Global Health Program at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation said, as quoted in a press release accompanying the report. “What is needed now is effective translation of the vast body of science through to subsistence and smallholder farmers in order to make a difference.”
The Gates Foundation supported the workshop leading to the report, Mycotoxin Control in Low- and Middle-Income Countries.