Background

The COVID 19 pandemic is wreaking havoc across the globe. The crisis is detrimentally affecting all civil, political, economic, social, cultural, and developmental rights. In Uganda, the government put up measures to prevent the spread of this virus and one of the key elements was a lockdown to control congestion in public places and temporary closing some offices and businesses.
Many people have bought and are keeping food to take them and their families through this pandemic. They buy food with long shelf life from shops. It should be noted that there is no mechanism of tracing for food in Uganda.
Government has also adopted the centralized mechanism of distributing food to the vulnerable population in the districts of Wakiso and Kampala which comprise of many urban dwellers that depend on a daily income to survive.
In a bid to support this effort and to assist this good cause, many corporate bodies, industries, companies and individuals offered food items to the National Task Force majorly consisting of maize flour and beans.

Food safety

Food safety refers to the proper handling, cooking, and preservation of food in order to protect people from foodborne illnesses caused by microbes such as bacteria, fungi, parasites and viruses. Food safety consideration include the entire food system for-instance the practices relating to food labelling, food hygiene, food additives and pesticide residues.1 Stomach aches, diarrhea, vomiting, fever, muscle aches and more can be caused by foodborne illness. This is why food safety is so important, if people avoid using proper food safety guidelines, they can cause themselves or others to fall ill and, in more serious cases even die.  As noted above, relief food donations, food in shops and generally the food system in Uganda does not have a mechanism for tracing yet. Some it is very difficult to know the source.

What are aflatoxins

Aflatoxins are poisonous substances produced by certain kinds of fungi (moulds) that are found naturally all over the world; they can contaminate food crops and pose a serious health threat to humans and livestock2. According to a study conducted by the Ministry of Agriculture, Animal Industry & Fisheries, aflatoxins are produced by moulds/fungi when they invade not-welldried foods such as maize, groundnuts, sorghum, soybean, millet, cassava, sweet potatoes, spices, and fish as well as animal feeds if processed from contaminated raw materials like maize and soybean. They cause death to humans and animals and several researches have linked aflatoxins as a major cause of liver cancer.

According to WHO, aflatoxins are potent carcinogens and may affect all organ systems, especially the liver and kidneys. AFB1 is the most common and most toxic aflatoxin which induces primary liver cancer. Aflatoxins have also been linked to be a cause of Hepatitis B virus infections. Large amounts of aflatoxins cause acute liver failure (jaundice, lethargy, nausea, death), identified as aflatoxicosis, which have been observed in human populations since the 1960s.  The most recent case of aflatoxin related death and illness was in Northern Uganda- Karamoja region in March 2019 where four people died and 262 others were left sick after consuming cereals distributed by the World Food Programme.

The 262 people that fell sick suffered from mental illnesses, vomiting, headache, high fever and abdominal pains after consuming the “Super cereal Corn” supplied to these communities by WFP. Investigations and tests were later carried out by the Ministry of Health and UNBS where some samples were found to have high aflatoxin B1 levels, bacteria and yeast contamination.

Research shows that in children, aflatoxins reduce growth leading to stunting and kwashiorkor. They are generally toxins which weaken the body’s immune system leading to escalation of effects of other illnesses such as HIV/ AIDS and malaria.

Factors promoting contamination by aflatoxins

Pre-harvest and post-harvest are said to be crucial times when aflatoxin contamination occurs. The different ways include:

1) Drying;
Drying techniques for various food crops in the country vary for instance, the majority of farmers’ dry maize and groundnuts on bare ground, some on polyethylene sheets or mats while others leave the crop to dry in the field. These drying methods are slow and may support growth and development of fungi thus increasing the potential for aflatoxin production.

2) Storage;

Majority of farmers and traders in Uganda store maize using woven polypropylene bags, which do not protect the grains against aflatoxin contamination. At the retail markets, most of the produce is not properly packaged, always exposed, making it susceptible to infection by moulds.

3) Climate and Moisture;

Aflatoxins are especially problematic in hot, dry climates. It is mainly reported that aflatoxins occur by high relative humidity and temperatures of unseasonal rains due to climatic changes at the time of harvest. Research generally shows that when commodities are stored under high moisture and temperature conditions, aflatoxin contamination is likely to occur.

Does the Government have a role to play

The government as a duty bearer has an obligation to promote, protect and fulfil rights that accrue to its citizens. Ugandan citizens are entitled to adequate food and nutrition, and by adequate it implies, “good, enough and safe food.” The right of every Ugandan to adequate food and nutrition is recognized generally the 1995 Constitution under Objective XIV, and specifically elaborated by Objective XXI. Objective XIV states that: “The State shall endeavour to fulfil the fundament rights of all Ugandans to socio justice and economic development and shall, in particular ensure that; (b) all Ugandans enjoy rights and opportunities and access to food security.” Objective XXII that is specific to food security and safety states that: “The State shall – (a) take appropriate steps to encourage people to grow and store adequate food; (b) Establish national food reserves; and (c) Encourage and promote proper nutrition through mass education and other appropriate means in order to build a healthy State.’’

What can be done?

As discussed above, foods contaminated with aflatoxins are harmful when consumed. In order to keep safe from consuming such foods, we advise all Ugandans during this COVID 19 relief food to;

Carefully inspect whole grains and nuts for evidence of mould, and discard any that look moldy, discolored, or shriveled;

• Buy grains and nuts which are as fresh as possible and which have not been transported over a long time;

• Make sure that foods are stored properly in a cool dry place and are not kept for extended periods of time before being used;

• Avoid storing dry food on the floor and in wet places

• Follow the presidential guidelines on healthy eating and lifestyles in Uganda from the Ministry of Health

• Do home gardening and make your own meals

• Carry out village food buying/buy from the garden

• Use as much as possible fresh foods

• Go organic. Avoid chemicals

• In this time, do vegetable planting. Use the seeds that mature quickly

• Try to ensure your diet is diverse. For example, extensive aflatoxin exposure has been reported from areas where people get a major part of their daily calorie intake   from maize;

• If you feel sick with symptoms like diarrhea, stomach upsets, nausea etc, seek medical assistance from a clinic or hospital; 

Where the medical report indicates that there’s a sickness as a result of consuming food with aflatoxins, keep your medical records

• Contact our offices (CEFROHT) for injustice or livelihood rights violations suffered

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