..."Wailing and writhing men collapsed in the street: others fell over and foamed in epileptic fits whilst some vomited and showed signs of insanity. Many of them shouted "Fire! I'm burning". It was an invisible fire that separated the flesh from the bones and consumed it. Men, women and children died in unbearable agonising pain."...
These are the words used by a tenth century chronicler to describe a disease which affected many parts of Europe in 943 AD. The disease became known as 'St Anthony's fire' because of the burning sensation experienced by the victims, many of whom visited the shrine of St Anthony in France in the hope of being cured. We now know that St Anthony's Fire (ergotism) was caused by the consumption of rye contaminated with the 'ergot alkaloids', produced by the mould Claviceps purpurea (Bove, 1970; Beardall and Miller, 1994), and that it reached epidemic proportions in many parts of Europe in the tenth century. Toxic secondary metabolites, such as the ergot alkaloids, which are produced by certain moulds are described as 'mycotoxins', and the diseases they cause are called 'mycotoxicoses'.
As recently defined by Pitt (1996), mycotoxins are 'fungal metabolites which when ingested, inhaled or absorbed through the skin cause lowered performance, sickness or death in man or animals, including birds.'
It is likely that mycotoxins have plagued mankind since the beginning of organised crop production. It has been surmised, for example, that the severe depopulation of western Europe in the thirteenth century was caused by the replacement of rye with wheat, an important source of Fusarium mycotoxins (Miller, 1991). The development of the Fusarium toxins in overwintered grain was also responsible for the death of thousands, and the decimation of entire villages, in Siberia during the Second World War. The mycotoxicosis latterly known as 'alimentary toxic aleukia' (ATA) produced vomiting, acute inflammation of the alimentary tract, anaemia, circulatory failure and convulsions.
Mycotoxins occur in a wide variety of foods and feeds and have been implicated (Mayer, 1953; Coker, 1997) in a range of human and animal diseases. Exposure to mycotoxins can produce both acute and chronic toxicities ranging from death to deleterious effects upon the central nervous, cardiovascular and pulmonary systems, and upon the alimentary tract. Mycotoxins may also be carcinogenic, mutagenic, teratogenic and immunosuppressive. The ability of some mycotoxins to compromise the immune response and, consequently, to reduce resistance to infectious disease is now widely considered to be the most important effect of mycotoxins, particularly in developing countries.
The mycotoxins attract world-wide attention because of the significant economic losses associated with their impact on human health, animal productivity and both domestic and international trade. It has been estimated (Miller, Personal communication), for example, that annual losses in the USA and Canada, arising from the impact of mycotoxins on the feed and livestock industries, are of the order of $5 billion. In developing countries, where the food staples (e.g. maize and groundnuts) are susceptible to contamination, it is likely that significant additional losses will occur amongst the human population because of morbidity and premature death associated with the consumption of mycotoxins.