A new report by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) found that aflatoxin likely is causing widespread stunting in children throughout Africa and Asia.

The results and analysis of possible interventions are published in the report Mycotoxin Control in Low- and Middle-Income Countries, which is available in English, French, and Spanish.

“The report stresses the need for a coordinated international response to the problem of mycotoxin contamination of food,” says IARC Director Christopher Wild. “Its health impact has been neglected for too long. We have the tools to make a difference. Now we must find the political will.”

An estimated 500 million of the poorest people in sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, and Asia are exposed to the pervasive natural toxins, aflatoxins and fumonisins, on a daily basis by eating their staple diet of groundnuts (called peanuts in the U.S.), maize, and other cereals.

People in these countries are exposed to levels far in excess of internationally accepted norms throughout their lives, while in developed countries, people and livestock are protected by good agricultural practices, regulation, and legislation.
Exposure to mycotoxins at these high levels substantially increases mortality and morbidity. Aflatoxin exposure causes liver cancer in humans and can kill by acute poisoning. Evidence from population studies and the effects of the toxins in animals also suggest that mycotoxins contribute to stunting in young children.

“Worldwide, more than 160 million children younger than 5 years are stunted. Improving mycotoxin control could have a far-reaching health benefit,” says IARC Working Group Chairman J. David Miller. “It is time to put the existing knowledge and technology into action to control mycotoxin food contamination in low-income countries.”

The panel also evaluated 15 interventions against mycotoxins, considering the strength of the evidence as well as its completeness and transferability at an individual, community, or national levels. The interventions include encouraging dietary diversity, developing new varieties with fungal resistance, adding soil amendments and pushing for post-harvest practices that discourage aflatoxin creation.

“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,” said Sindura Ganapathi of the Global Health Program at the BMGF. “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 study is getting attention. The magazine Science posted an online article about the findings within a day of the study’s release.