July 23, 2013
A new study from researchers at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and colleagues has examined the impact of aflatoxins on the AIDS epidemic in Africa. Aflatoxins are poisons produced by aspergillus fungi that can be found on damp grains, nuts, and beans, usually in hot humid climates. Federal law limits the allowable amount of these highly dangerous toxins in food to 20 parts per billion. High doses of aflatoxins can be deadly; exposure even to low doses could cause liver cancer. Aflatoxins also have been found to be immunosuppressive, possibly causing increased immunosuppression in HIV-positive individuals.
Because African countries rely heavily on several crops that develop aspergillus, researchers investigated the association between aflatoxins and HIV. They measured the blood levels of aflatoxins and the disease in 314 HIV-positive Ghanaians who had never been on antiretroviral therapy. Results showed that higher aflotoxin levels in participants' blood often coincided with higher HIV blood levels, even for individuals with high levels of CD4 blood cells. These participants with high CD4 blood cells had not been infected long and were not eligible to begin antiretroviral therapy, under World Health Organization guidelines. Researchers believed that aflatoxins either produced proteins that contributed to HIV reproduction or reduced the number of white blood cells in some way, making the virus's attack on the immune system more powerful.
The full report, "Association Between High Aflatoxin B1 Levels and High Viral Load in HIV-Positive People," was published online in the World Mycotoxin Journal (2013; doi 10.3920/WMJ2013.1585).