Staple food crops, particularly those consumed in regions of Sub-Saharan Africa, are often contaminated with mycotoxins which increase people’s susceptibility to HIV and subsequent infections, lead to certain types of cancer, and children’s malnourishment and stunting. The Peanut CRSP led research has established a strong correlation between mycotoxin (aflatoxin and fumonisin) contaminated food and HIV, and poor nutrition. The CRSP is also at the forefront of developing immediate interventions that will reduce the effects of these toxins. These interventions could prevent up to 1 million HIV infections in Africa, reduce rates of cancer, and improve the nutritional status of children. In March 2012, Peanut CRSP Director Tim Williams facilitated a dialogue between the agriculture, health, and nutrition communities on the effects of mycotoxins, highlighting how their mutual goals can be addressed through continued research and Peanut CRSP recommended interventions. Dr. Williams spoke about toxin-binding food additives as an immediate and inexpensive way to protect people against the harmful effects of aflatoxin and fumonisin contaminated food.
While other interventions against mycotoxins carried out during production, postharvest storage, and processing and through enforcement of standards are preferable they are more difficult to implement. In contrast, food additives, like bentonite, are safe for human consumption, cost less than two cents per week for adults, are effective against both aflatoxin and fumonisin, and are easily implemented. Since these toxins are anti-nutritional the application of these food additives effectively increases the nutritional value of the food and improves the immunity and health of the beneficiaries.
Speaking to the health and agriculture communities at USAID, Williams recommended that more research be done on the relationship between mycotoxins and HIV transmission as well as the potential benefits of reducing aflatoxin exposure. In line with PEPFAR’s push to focus on preventing HIV/AIDS transmission in addition to existing activities focused on treatment, Williams recommended that that PEPFAR promote mycotoxin management in its activities, increase public awareness through campaigns, and based on the Peanut CRSP’s intervention recommendation, provide toxin-minimized foods to HIV+ people and those at high risk of contracting the infection to potentially reduce the rate of HIV progression and transmission.
While engaging with health and nutrition experts and USAID’s Bureau for Food Security Williams stressed the need for continued research on this topic to address concerns about children’s and adult’s nutrition and the livelihoods of smallholder farmers and rural communities in Sub-Saharan Africa and other impacted regions. Ultimately, the expansion of current research and collaboration across sectors has the potential to address USAID’s goals for food security, HIV, health and nutrition communities by making an impact on agricultural production and the health and livelihoods of people in developing countries.