29 July 2016

Tanzania: Food Poisoning Linked to 14 Deaths in Two Regions

Photo: Daily News
Aflatoxins are toxic, carcinogenic by-products of fungi that colonise maize and groundnuts, among other crops (file photo).

Dar es Salaam — Results of laboratory tests conducted on blood and urine samples of people who died or fell ill after eating food believed to have been contaminated in Dodoma and Manyara regions have revealed shocking levels of aflatoxins, The Citizen can report.

The US-based Centre for Disease Control (CDC), which carried out the tests on 19 urine and blood samples, has also isolated the most poisonous and cancer-causing substance known as Aflatoxin B1. Medical sources say this type of aflatoxin damages the liver.

However, the exact source of the contamination remains a mystery. Local researchers from the department of Epidemiology in the Ministry of Health are now compiling evidence gathered from the affected regions to try and establish whether the "poison" was from animal or plant sources.

A source at the Health ministry has confided that the level of aflatoxins was found by the CDC to be about 200 parts per billion (ppb), while the human body can only withstand 5ppb levels. The Citizen has learnt that officials in government have been in a dilemma whether to release the findings to the public or not for fear of causing panic in affected areas .

Reports say the findings have already been submitted to the Prime Minister to determine how it is to be handled. The challenge is still on how to release the findings to the public. with fears it might arouse panic to consumers of cereals across the country.

Until yesterday, data from the ministry of Health, Community Development, Gender, Children and the Elderly showed that at least 14 deaths linked to the Dodoma and Manyara incidents had been recorded while 53 were still suspected cases.

Health minister Ummy Mwalimu yesterday described the findings as "the highest ever recorded levels of aflatoxins." She said that the results would be released officially next week.

"Our specimens at CDC yielded the highest levels of aflatoxins ever recorded. We are facing a very serious problem," the minister told The Citizen. She, however, did not go into specific details.

About two months ago, the Tanzania Food and Drugs Authority (TFDA) reported that traces of Aflatoxin poisoning had been found in grain samples in Dodoma Region.

The samples of cereals tested by the TFDA included maize, sorghum and millet. News of the "food poison" crisis broke on June 13 in Chemba District in Dodoma. It was reported that a family of nine people in Mwaikisabe Village were affected before more cases arose in surrounding areas, including Kondoa District.

Although the public health crisis has been linked with cereals, researchers at the Health ministry are yet to establish the exact source of the poisoning. A researchers from the Department of Epidemiology, Dr Asma Simba, told The Citizen yesterday that that there was no direct explanation yet, linking the deaths of people in Dodoma and Manyara with cereals or some animal food.

"When we analyse the results, we will release the findings. This may take some time though," said Dr Simba in a telephone interview.

Blood and urine samples were sent to Atlanta, and results came back more than three weeks ago but government officials are still in a dilemma over whether to release the findings or not, sources say.

However, it emerged yesterday that the government has ordered a fresh round of tests and samples of cereals, urine and blood from unaffected individuals would be taken for analysis in the US, Belgium and the UK.

"The samples were collected last week. Now the World Health Organisation and the CDC are only waiting for a permit so that those samples would be sent to those countries for further analysis," said at the Health ministry officials who preferred anonymity. The ministry of Agriculture and Livestock has been carrying out mass education in the affected regions to try and help people learn how to store their grains properly. But they remained tight-lipped on the findings on the high levels of aflatoxins from the CDC. Assistant director of plant protection Mkondo Phabian told The Citizen that the "aflatoxin crisis" was slowly becoming a big public health crisis but he didn't want to get into the details of the new findings of aflatoxins and the response locally.

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