Tests again suggest rice mold causes Vietnam’s fatal skin disease

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Health officials examine rice in Quang Ngai Province after a mysterious, fatal skin disease returned, claiming a young girl. Tests have found high levels of fungal toxins in the rice. PHOTO COURTESY OF VIETNAM GOVERNMENT WEBSITE

Authorities have again blamed moldy rice for causing a mysterious skin disease that has returned to a central mountain district after a year's reprieve, killing one girl and infecting at least four others.
Test results from the Ho Chi Minh City Institute of Hygiene and Public Health showed that most rice samples taken from Ba To District in Quang Ngai Province were positive for fungi, news website VnExpress reported.
The samples contained up to 100 times the amount of aflatoxins permitted by Vietnamese health standards.
Family members of patient Pham Van Troi showed high amounts of Aflatoxin B1, which is considered a highly toxic fungus.
Pham Thi Huy, 14, died on April 17 of the disease which has sickened some 250 people in Ba To and Son Ha districts and killed 26.
Local health officials said Troi is likely to end up the same as he has refused to remain in the hospital and receive treatment.
The disease begins with high fever, loss of appetite and causes the skin on one's palms and feet to thicken and swell. It can cause fatal organ failure, which typically begins in the liver.
The condition is thought to be caused by chronic poisoning, but the toxin responsible for it has yet to be identified, although a few factors have been suspected like heavy metals in the soil and moldy rice.
In May 2012, local officials brought in 60 tons of rice to the area after a Health Ministry study suggested rice mold as a possible cause for the illness.
Le Huy, a spokesman for Quang Ngai’s health department, said he had the samples sent to Ho Chi Minh City after noticing that many ethnic minorities in the affected areas continue to eat fungus-covered rice as a traditional food.
The locals bury wet rice and dig it up to eat the black grains.
Health checks in April found at least 35 locals suffered from high levels of liver enzymes.
But local officials said that they suspect there’s another cause related to the weather, as the disease tends to recur between February and May every year.

In an interview with VnExpress last year, Dr. Babatunde Olowokure from the World Health Organization (WHO) in Vietnam said the disease bears no resemblance to any disease or illness that has ever been known in the world.

No effective method of treatment has been established, despite several visits to the area by the ministry officials and WHO experts.

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