Kenya: Alert over maize poisoning

Posted Wednesday, October 1 2008


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Kenyans should brace themselves for another round of maize poisoning, this time with devastating results, a team of local and foreign medical and research scientists has found out.

Surveys in Makueni have shown local maize to contain extremely high levels of aflatoxin, some almost 50 times over the safe levels recommended by the World Health Organisation.

The allowable levels are 20 parts per billion, but what has been found in Makueni was as high as 1,000 parts per billion.

Two previous outbreaks of maize poisoning in the same area in 2004 and 2005 resulted in 395 cases of severe aflatoxin poisoning with 157 deaths and yet, say the researchers, little has been done to mitigate future outbreaks.

Now scientists from the National Public Health Laboratory Services, Kenya Medical Research Institute and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention both in Kenya and the US, say the problem is widespread and could be more severe than previously thought.

Highest levels

The team in the current issue of the Kenya Medical Journal has ruled out previous claims that the poisoning is caused by relief maize.

Home-grown maize was found to have the highest aflatoxin levels followed by maize bought on the local market. However, relief maize was found to be safe.

The study indicates that as a result, area residents are exposed to a high risk of hepatitis, jaundice, intestinal injuries and liver cancer.

Writing in the same journal, the chief researcher at Kemri, Dr Fredrick Okoth, says the residents of Makueni and surrounding districts should be monitored for early detection of liver diseases.

The researchers are categorical that the cause of high levels of aflatoxin in maize in Makueni and neighbouring districts is poor handling at harvesting, drying and storage of local produce.

They say that only 38 per cent of participants had the right information on proper handling of harvests.

“Almost 80 per cent of maize in the area is stored in plastic bags known to retain moisture and promote aflatoxin contamination.”

Spreading maize on the ground to dry increases its contact with the soil, where the aflatoxin-causing fungus resides.

But Dr Okoth says an imminent outbreak could be averted with proper maize handling and strict observation of cereal marketing and harvesting guidelines.



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