India, state of Bihar

Litchis may not be responsible for child deaths in Muzaffarpur

As children have died of an unexplained mystery disease in the Muzaffarpur district of Bihar, people are looking at the litchi. Muzaffarpur, India’s “land of litchis,” supplies the bulk of the country’s litchi harvest and the classiest varieties. Now reporters are writing on how certain chemicals in the fruit cause fatal brain inflammation in undernourished children below age 15.

This litchi scare has hit sales and making prices tumble, affecting the very children whose families depend on the fruit for livelihood. Hypothesis and theories are being reviewed. Experts admit that for 50 per cent of the cases no one knows what the triggers are. And 50 per cent remain undiagnosed and untreated.

Scientists now suggest that the litchi may not be a root cause of AES. Increasingly, a viral explanation for the fatal illness—Acute Encephalitis Syndrome (AES)—in children is gaining ground.

AES strikes early in the morning, with high fever, convulsions, disorientation, coma, seizures; signs of brain inflammation. Tests reveal very low blood glucose levels, caused by high concentrations of unusual amino acids (hypoglycin A and MCPG) that are also found in litchis.

Experts also point to human-animal-environment interface as the source of the disease. Given that Indians interact closely with livestock and wildlife, they map various other ways of transmission of AES. For instance, children gorging on litchis, can easily pick up fruits contaminated by the saliva, urine, or guano of bats. Bats host more than 60 human-infecting viruses—including the Ebola and Nipah viruses, which cause deadly brain fevers in people.

Regardless, according to¸ it is really time to figure out exactly why such a fruit is being associated with the deaths of children in Muzaffarpur.

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