Battle to halt cyanide poisoning in Africa

Sunday, 18 February, 2001

An ANU chemist, working with collaborators in Mozambique, has been instrumental in developing a multiprolonged approach to eliminating cyanide poisoning in Africa.

Konzo, a disease that causes irreversible paralysis of the legs, is endemic in parts of Nampula Province in Mozambique and is also a problem in other parts of Africa where the cyanide-bearing cassava root is eaten.

At least 600 million people rely on cassava roots for their staple diet however, according to Dr Howard Bradbury, Visiting Fellow at the Division of Botany & Zoology, it is one of many plants that produce cyanide compounds to protect itself.

Long-term, sub-lethal doses are believed to cause konzo, an upper-motor neuron disease that affects children, and women of child-bearing age.

'Konzo' means "˜tied legs' because of the way the knees are drawn together. "The typical gait of a person with konzo who can walk is leant over backwards. Many of the worse affected children "“ the most susceptible "“ have to crawl across the ground", he said.

In an attempt to reduce the effects of the disease, a variety of strategies have been developed.

In the short-term, with private money mainly from Australia, a rehabilitation centre has been established, where konzo sufferers can learn to regain some control over their legs.

To monitor the extent of cyanide intake, Dr Bradbury has developed a test kit that can determine the amount of cyanide in cassava roots and flour. He and co-worker Dr Rezaul Haque, have also developed another test kit for thiocyanate analysis of urine which determines how much cyanide people have in their systems.

The Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR), is funding the research program and giving free kits to agriculturalists and health workers in developing countries.

Item provided courtesy by the ANU reporter.

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