This Wednesday, health officials said that at least 31 children have died in northern India in the last 10 days from a deadly brain disease understood to be linked to a toxic substance found in lychee fruit.
The deaths were reported from two hospitals in Bihar state’s Muzaffarpur district, an area known for its abundant lychee orchards that flourish in the region’s tropical climate in the summer.
All of those affected showed symptoms of Acute Encephalitis Syndrome (AES), a deadly viral infection carried by mosquitoes and characterised by high fever and inflammation of the brain.
Outbreaks of the disease have occurred in Muzaffarpur and its neighboring districts for more than 20 years, with 2014 seeing the biggest loss of life when over 150 deaths in India were linked to the illness.
The sweet translucent fruit is believed to induce a fatal metabolic illness called hypoglycemic encephalopathy in children, especially among those who are young and consume a poor diet. This is because Methylene cyclopropyl-glycine (MCPG), a chemical found in the lychee, affects brain functioning when body sugar levels are low because of fasting or undernourishment.
Official figures have placed the number of reported AES cases so far this year at 48, an increase from 40 in 2018.
So far, the local government has confirmed only 11 deaths attributed to AES. In light of the growing number of cases, the union ministry of health and family welfare on Tuesday established a specialist team to contain the disease. It is feared that AES cases could rise over the coming months among undernourished children living near lychee gardens in rural areas prone to flooding.
Ashok Kumar Singh, a senior health official: “The health department has already issued an advisory for people to take care of their children during the hot summer when day temperature is above 40oC (104oF).”
He said that most of the children who died at hospitals in Muzaffarpur had suffered a sudden loss of glucose in their blood, and at least 40 other children who complained of similar symptoms were being treated at intensive care units.
Experts believe that children living near lychee gardens in rural areas prone to flooding are more at risk when the fruit is harvested commercially in May and June.