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Iron overload in Sub-Saharan Africa: to what extent is it a public health problem?

  • Alexander R. P. Walker (a1) and Isidor Segal (a2)


Excessive deposition of Fe in the organs and tissues of Sub-Saharan Africans was first described in South Africa in 1929. Fe overload, or siderosis, was initially attributed to infections and to metallic poisoning (Cu, Sn, Zn), and then to malnutrition. In 1953 it was hypothesized that it was due primarily to excessive Fe intake derived from foods and drinks prepared in Fe vessels. Recently, in 1992 it was advanced that a gene distinct from any HLA-linked locus may also play a role. As to sequelae, in early research on series of hospital patients, the condition was linked to scurvy, osteoporosis, diabetes, cirrhosis, and latterly, to hepatocellular cancer and tuberculosis. Accordingly, many have concluded that Fe overload is responsible for considerable morbidity and mortality, that adventitious Fe intake should be reduced, and that phlebotomy be recommended for those severely affected. However, there are numerous limitations in the evidence. There are also problems in interpretation, since levels of Fe in the serum are affected additionally by a variety of factors: infection, inflammation, certain cancers and alcohol intake. These considerations complicate attempts to assess to what extent the associations described denote causation, and whether Fe overload has significant ramifications for ill in the general African population. While the adverse sequelae of overload may be less of significance than many believe, the precise pathogenicity of the phenomenon will remain uncertain until further investigations, including prospective studies, are undertaken.

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Corresponding author

*Corresponding author: Dr A. R. P. Walker, fax +27 11 489 9001, email


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British Journal of Nutrition
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