A family has been effectively wiped out because of mushroom poisoning while another has lost four members with four others hospitalised.
In Mberengwa in the Midlands, eight members of the Shoko family fell ill on Tuesday last week after they ate wild mushrooms. The other case of poisoning occurred in the same district which killed three. The third, which resulted in four deaths, happened in Filabusi in Matabeleland South.
Wild mushrooms are plenty during the rainy season like now and many rural families gather them for household consumption and for sale. It indeed is a delicacy for some and a source of revenue for others who sell it at fresh produce markets in towns or at roadsides across the country. However, it is saddening that the seasonal delicacy is also a potential poison which has sickened and killed so many in such a short time this rainy season.
Generally, mushroom poisoning shows immediately after consumption and can kill in a few hours but we have learnt that sometimes, depending on its toxicity, growing conditions and the ability of the eater’s system to fight the poison, the adverse effects can take longer to appear.
Nausea, vomiting, cramps and diarrheoa are common signs, although the major effects are on the central nervous system. The eater suffers confusion, visual distortion, a feeling of greater strength, delusions and convulsions. Drowsiness is another possible symptom as well and some who ingest the dangerous mushrooms fall asleep and cannot be roused. In other cases the coma-like state can last for more than 24 hours.
We are deeply disturbed by the recorded fatalities and illnesses and would want to urge our people to be always careful where and when they collect, prepare and eat mushrooms. They should also be aware of the signs and symptoms of mushroom poisoning and steps to take as and when they notice them. It is tricky that boiling, cooking, freezing, or processing may not change the toxicity of most mushrooms.
The traditional practice is that only adult, knowledgeable women or men collect wild mushrooms. They are able to distinguish between the poisonous from non-poisonous varieties while paying regard to the conditions under which the fungal crop grows, so they only pick the former and leaving the latter to die off. After they do this, they again screen them to make sure they indeed collected the best and proceed to cook the relish.
The experienced pickers know where to collect the mushroom since some normally non-poisonous varieties can actually be toxic if they grow in some environments. For example, those that grow under or near eucalyptus trees are particularly dangerous when ingested thus must never be picked and eaten.
The fact that in the Mberengwa and Filabusi cases two minors gathered the mushroom that was later eaten could be the reason why some got sick and others died as a result. It is likely that the girls simply went out to forage for a fungal plant that they knew to be mushroom but weren’t able to decipher which one of them was safe or dangerous to eat. It can be possible too that they weren’t aware of the need to look around for possible toxifying elements in the environments the plant grew.
We advise that families must have their experienced, adult members only picking the crop for them and never send novices to perform that task. Doing this reduces the risk of someone taking the wrong mushrooms that can sicken and kill when eaten.
If someone suffers any of the signs and symptoms identified earlier after eating mushrooms, we advise they seek medical attention early. This can save their lives. We note with much regret that in the Filabusi case the family ate the food on Saturday but went to hospital on Monday evening. The period from ingestion of the poisonous mushrooms and access to medical care was too long so the toxins had a long time to cause damage before it was flushed out.
We note that all the fatalities reported so far have occurred in rural areas where most of our less resourced people reside and thus view mushrooms as an important addition to their menus. However, at this time of the year, a lot of safer relishes are available too — okra, pumpkin leaves and so on — that can be cooked and eaten. Our people can therefore not convince us that poverty drove them into collecting and cooking a lethal vegetable at a time when alternatives are plenty. Thus we argue that our suggestion for people to simply stop eating mushrooms should not be seen as insensitive.
To those who are unable to pick mushrooms but consider buying from roadside markets our sincere advice is that they must not do so completely. Pointing this out might make us unpopular in some circles but buyers need to consider that they do not know where the crop was picked and what its growing conditions were. They should not trust the sellers that much. Yes, they might know a certain variety by merely seeing it and may have eaten something like it before, but they can never be sure of the relevant conditions this time around.
The country has a small mushroom growing sector that is also very profitable. They grow the crop in controlled environments where chances of it developing poisonous are next to none. Given the dangers associated with eating wild mushrooms as exemplified by the deaths we have seen over the past few days and over the years, we implore those wishing to eat it to buy only from these growers.