Chocolate Made in South Africa for homesick Brits?

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This blog is about the weirdness of global trade… and the
lengths (literally) we go for chocolate.

The wrapper on my Marks & Spencer (M&S) valentine chocolates read: “Made with our exclusive British Milk chocolate recipe, Made in
South Africa”.

Incredibly, it seemed that a firm in South Africa (SA) was targeting local people with a taste for British chocolate, and somehow M&S
sourced them for sale in the UK! 

Was this I wondered another example of fuel miles not being
built into food production costs (see “food miles”), like apples  from the Cape or Kenyan flowers at petrol stations?

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Mystery disease in Ethiopia solved: linked to weed toxin

Imagine this…

A mysterious disease terrorising your community, not infectious but spreading nonetheless, and killing your relatives and neighbours. All you want to do is pack your bags and flee. Worse, when your plight comes to the attention of the health authorities, they are stumped and its not going to be easy or quick to solve.

A recent example of this kind of illness is “nodding disease (South Sudan, Uganda, and Tanzania), which affects children 5-15 years old: they suffer epileptic seizures which causes their heads to nod, and they end up severely disabled and finally die. The USA’s Centre for Disease Control (CDC) is working to identify the cause: so far, the best guess is that it’s linked to the parasite that causes river blindness combined with an autoimmune reaction, and exposure to chemicals could predispose.

Other examples of non-communicable disease outbreaks

On Global Health, I found there are outbreaks going back to 1911 (epidemic dropsy) but more recent ones were in India,  Bangladesh, Nigeria, Brazil, China, Afghanistan and even the USA.

 What are the likely causes for these outbreaks? The body of research, as found on databases like Global Health, tells us that they could be contamination of food and water supply, exposure to chemicals or heavy metals in the environment, or even use of traditional medicine.

 Mystery liver disease in Ethiopia with a ‘happy’ ending

Can public health authorities in low-income countries solve & stop such outbreaks?   Yes. In 2005, in Ethiopia, a 4 year long outbreak of liver disease in Tseda Emba, a small village of the Tahtay Koraro district of Tigray, finally reached the attention of the Tigray Health Bureau (THB). Now, in 2012, the multidisciplinary and one-health approach they initiated has “solved” the mysterious illness, significantly reducing new cases. 

 The research work was the subject of an entire session at the recent World Congress Public Health (WCPH-2012) in Ethiopia, and is now published as 5 papers in the supplement to April 2012’s edition of Ethiopian Medical Journal (EMJ). [Abstracts to these papers will be available on Global Health]. It demonstrates the relevance of the one-health approach to public health in low-income countries and is a fascinating detective story….

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Mushrooms, delicious or deadly?

Yunnan sudden death syndrome occurs in remote mountainous villages of the Yunnan province of China in the rainy season, at an altitude of 1800-2400 m: people just drop dead from heart failure. You might think its linked to the season…some waterborne or insect-carried disease, or maybe the altitude & a genetic quirk, but it turns out that it’s because the villagers make their living collecting & selling wild mushrooms. The only one they can’t sell is a white mushroom, because it’s too small & turns brown quickly after picking. So they eat it…and the Chinese CDC have shown that for a minority of the local population, this mushroom is toxic. Its’ thought that they are sensitive to a combination of the mycotoxins and high barium levels found in the mushroom.(see Rare mushroom blamed for mystery deaths in China)

This reminds me of a passage in a book “The Magic Bullet” (a book about drug development) that I read many years ago, which pointed out that in certain graveyards in the UK, you could find whole families who died together in medieval times, and not through the plague. These deaths were linked to poor harvests. It turned out these families’ had been forced to turn to foraging for mushrooms (an action we now term using “famine food”), and even though villagers in general were probably more expert than we are now at identifying safe ones, one mistake added to the family pot, and that was that!

But don’t be complacent: in the UK in 2009 the case of two Thai women hit national headlines. One of them misidentified an English mushroom and the result was that she cooked and ate a number of them, and died.  The other who ate fewer of them became seriously ill with liver failure. It was a death-cap mushroom… just half of one of these is sufficient to kill an adult. (see Isle of Wight woman died… )

I decided to see what records our Global Health database has on toxic mushrooms & other fungi, their toxins (mycotoxins) and cases of human poisoning by them.

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