Dar es Salaam. Critical questions remain unanswered about the food poisoning crisis in Dodoma and Manyara regions, where 14 people have died so far and 54 others admitted to various medical facilities in the two regions.
The public is still largely uninformed about where exactly the cereals contaminated with deadly aflatoxins came from, how they entered the food chain and whether or not they have now been removed from the food chain.
Another crucial question is whether the contaminated cereals were distributed beyond the two regions and if more people might still be consuming the affected cereals.
Matters are further complicated by the fact that there is no information yet about whether there were efforts by the authorities to remove the contaminated cereals from the market.
The questions remain unanswered even as Health Minister Ummy Mwalimu yesterday unveiled a report on the issue confirming earlier reports that the poison was aflatoxin. She told reporters that officials in her docket were now collaborating with the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock to try and educate the public in the affected areas on how to preserve their cereals safely and keep them away from the deadly fungi.
The implication here was that the contamination of the cereals was a result of poor post-harvest preservation.
She revealed that the majority of those affected by the aflatoxicosis died from liver failure and warned that many more people in Dodoma and Manyara, who consumed the contaminated cereals, could be suffering from liver problems. At least 54 people are now reported to have been exposed to the poison.
The US-based Center for Disease Control (CDC), recently carried out tests on 19 blood samples and also isolated the most poisonous and cancer-causing substance known as Aflatoxin B1. Medical sources show this type of aflatoxin damages the liver.
“We (the government) are now working with local and international laboratories to try and screen those who might have been exposed to the aflatoxins. We now urge the public to be cautious,’’ said Ms Mwalimu at a press conference.
She had told The Citizen last week that the findings by the CDC showed the level of aflatoxins of the cereals samples from Tanzania as the “highest ever recorded.’’
“Our specimens at CDC yielded the highest levels of aflatoxins ever recorded in cereals. It’s a very serious problem,’’ Ms Mwalimu had exclusively told The Citizen.
A source close to The Citizen at the Health ministry has since confided that the level of aflatoxins found by the CDC was about 200 parts per billion (ppb), while the human body can tolerate only 5ppb levels.
During a press conference yesterday, the minister said that the government was now looking into ways of carrying out mass education on aflatoxins and how they affect cereal products.
An independent expert, a pharmacist, Dr Sajjad Fazel, says educating farmers with proper techniques is key to solving the aflatoxin crisis in Tanzania and Africa in general.
“Aflatoxins poisoning has always been a massive problem in Africa causing a loss of $450 million worth of farmed goods. The growth of these fungi can be limited by proper drying and storage of food produce,’’ he wrote in a column on health in The Citizen yesterday.
“Nonetheless, there is an innovative solution to protecting crops out in the field. This involves deliberately introducing a non-toxic form of aspergillus commonly known as Aflasafe,’’ he suggested.
“This causes competitive inhibition between the two strains in which case the toxic strain eventually gets displaced,’’ noted the Pharmacist.
Even as the government plans a mass campaign to educate people on better ways to protect cereals from contamination The Citizen is reliably informed that it has not yet determined with certainty whether the food poisoning was from the contaminated cereals.
The Citizen is aware that government epidemiologists are still putting together evidence gathered from the two affected regions as they try to see if they were the real cause of the poisoning.
One of the researchers from the Department of Epidemiology, Dr Asma Simba, told The Citizen last week that there was yet no direct explanation linking the deaths of people in Dodoma and Manyara with cereals or animal food.
“When we analyse the results, we will be able to release the findings. This may take some time though,’’ Dr Simba said in a telephone interview.
The food poison crisis broke out on June 13 in Chemba District in Dodoma. It was reported that nine people from the same family in Mwaikisabe Village were affected before it spread out to surrounding areas, including Kondoa District.