A recent study carried out by researchers at the University of Alabama at Birmingham suggests that aflatoxins – poisonous compounds produced by some molds – may be worsening the AIDS epidemic in Ghana.
The researchers sampled blood from 314 Ghanians who had not received antiviral treatment. They found that the individuals that had higher concentrations of aflatoxins in their blood were more likely to have high HIV blood levels.
The research team theorizes that the aflatoxins either provide a protein that assists in the reproduction of the HIV virus, or reduces the number or effectiveness of white blood cells, thereby allowing the HIV to reside and propagate more freely.
Aflatoxins are a known danger. The U.S. Food & Drug Administration sets limits on the quantity of aflatoxins certain foods and animal feed may have. These concentrations range from 20 to 300 parts per billion (ppb). In developed countries, commercial crops are routinely screened for aflatoxin using detection techniques that are performed in a laboratory setting. Food supplies that test over the regulatory limit are considered unsafe for human consumption and destroyed.
In developing nations, many people are exposed to aflatoxin through food grown at home. Inadequate harvesting and storage techniques allow for the growth of aflatoxin-producing fungus. Homegrown crops are not routinely tested for the presence of aflatoxin.
It is estimated that approximately 4.5 billion people worldwide are overexposed to aflatoxins. Consistent exposure to the compounds leads to liver damage and certain cancers, as well as stunted growth and delayed development in children. In 2004, 125 people in Kenya died from aflatoxins exposure – analysis of moldy corn located in the region revealed that aflatoxins levels reached as high as 8,000 parts per billion in some samples.