A new study raises the question of whether corn contaminated with a fungus-derived toxin is helping to facilitate the transmission of HIV in sub-Saharan Africa. (reported by Reuters Health on 9 June 2010).
The toxins, called fumonisins, are produced by a particular type of fungus that can grow in corn after the plant is damaged by pests such as the cornstalk borer.
Fumonisins may be harmful to human health, with some studies linking consumption of the toxins to an increased rate of cancer of the esophagus, the tube that connects the throat to the stomach.
In the new study, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition researchers looked at whether there may be a relationship between HIV transmission in sub-Saharan Africa and general consumption of foods prone to contamination with fumonisins or other fungus- produced toxins (known as mycotoxins).
Using data from the World Health Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organization, the researchers found that as sub-Saharan countries' per-person corn consumption rose, so did HIV transmission rates.
The researchers also found that higher per-capita corn consumption correlated with a higher rate of esophageal cancer. Since fumonisin toxins have been linked to that cancer, the finding serves as an indicator that populations with high corn consumption were exposed to higher levels of the toxin.