Sunday, March 27, 2011

Citizens at risk as government dithers

Sunday Nation 27 March 2011

Three recent reports on the presence of contaminated maize in Kenya should have all of us worried.

The first report, published in January this year, showed that maize samples from markets and farms across the country contained very high levels of aflatoxin; a chemical by-product of fungi that colonise maize and other food crops.

This chemical has the potential to cause liver problems, including cancer, in anyone who consumes contaminated food regularly. This particular report suggested that between one and two thirds of maize produced and sold across the country had dangerous aflatoxin levels, rendering a large percentage of the cereal unfit for human consumption.

The second report was equally significant, but definitely more worrying. Researchers sampled maize flour from several major millers across the country, and concluded that up to 65 per cent of the sampled flour was contaminated with aflatoxin.

The scientists indicated that they would embark on a national survey to determine the true extent of the problem in Kenya, although they cited reports indicating that children were already suffering malnutrition due to aflatoxin poisoning.

As if these two reports are not frightening enough, the chairman of the Parliamentary Committee on Agriculture made a sensational claim that an “influential family” had imported millions of bags of aflatoxin-contaminated maize into the country.

He further alleged that the maize was already in the market, suggesting that Kenyans were already using it to make their staple, ugali.

Despite these shocking revelations, nothing concrete has been heard from responsible government agencies. There are no publicised visits to “affected” areas by Public Health personnel from Afya House, or public statements by the relevant ministers.

In a civilised society in which government exists to serve its people, a number of responses would be expected.

First, the minister responsible for agriculture would have tendered her resignation for doing little to save the lives of Kenyans who will surely die in the near future from liver failure and cancers.

The reports of aflatoxin-induced malnutrition have actually emanated from the current minister’s own county.

Second, the politician who made claims that poisoned maize has been imported into the country would have been compelled to provide this information to the relevant authorities, and the culprits would be cooling their heels in prison.

Third, the government would prioritise efforts to deal with this threat to the health of its people, and health authorities would spare no effort in ensuring that the poison is eliminated from the food chain.

Unfortunately, we are not a civilised society by any stretch of the imagination, and we do not have a government that cares about the health of its people.

Politicians use the death of their electors to make political points, and use the living ones as pawns in a wider political chess game.

In any case, if we were a truly civilised society, we would not have people sleeping in tents away from their farms while being called “fake IDPs”.

We would not be saddled with parliamentarians who, to this day, continue to defy the Constitution and refuse to pay taxes on their incomes like other Kenyans.

Finally, if we were truly civilised, we would not today be labouring under a coalition government forced upon us to stop us from killing each other purportedly over an electoral dispute.

Dr Lukoye Atwoli is a consultant psychiatrist and lecturer at Moi University’s school of medicine

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