Aflatoxin can kill you outright if you eat very highly contaminated food, but these tragedies are relatively rare. It does most of its damage slowly and silently, making it difficult to catch red-handed. Like an enemy within, it chips away at our defences and weakens us against other agents of sickness.
Almost everyone in Africa has been exposed to aflatoxin, building up in our bodies over years of low-level exposure. While we will never be able to pin down an exact number, it is clearly implicated in compromising the health of millions:
- Aflatoxin causes liver cancer, and is responsible for at least 30% of cases in Africa. Liver cancer is one of the most prevalent and deadly cancers on our continent, many tens of thousands of people every year. Wherever aflatoxin contamination is highest, cancer cases rise too: in the aflatoxin hotspots of Mozambique you are sixty times more likely to suffer liver cancer than if you live in the USA.
- Aflatoxin suppresses the immune system, and makes us weaker against other diseases, such as HIV/AIDS and malaria. It also makes vaccines less effective.
- Aflatoxin damages the intestine, making us less able to digest food properly. It is linked to malnutrition and nutrient deficiencies.
- In children, these negative health effects lead to stunted growth and poor development.
For a more in-depth look at health impacts, see our food safety and health page.