litchi plantation muzaffarpur
A litchi plantation site in Muzaffarpur

There appears a sinister effort to shift the blame of encephalitis deaths from the incompetent Bihar administration to the fruit litchi grown in the region. While razing the litchi trees to the ground would affect the local economy severely, we would obviously not advise risking precious lives for money.

More than 160 children in Bihar have lost their lives due to acute encephalitis syndrome that the local population is referring to as ‘Chamki fever’. According to the authoritative reports received so far, the presence of some ‘toxins’ in litchi is believed to have caused encephalitis. However, while some encephalitis deaths are reported every year from Bihar during the summers, generations have grown up on this fruit, having experienced no harm whatsoever.

Out of the children reported dead this year, almost all are malnourished. As Sirf News had reported earlier, not only is the fruit causing no damage to well-fed children, but also the children who are affected are not being given adequate first aid on the way to the hospitals, which had been done efficiently during the outbreak of 2014. The Sirf News editorial on the subject read: “Five years ago, a medical team saved 74% of sick children through a simple intervention by infusing 10% dextrose within 4 h of the onset of illness.” Why could this not be done in 2019?

While the litchi seed contains an unusual amino acid called hypoglycin-A or methylene cyclopropyl glycine (MCPG), people hardly consume the seed. This is a naturally occurring fruit-based toxin according to a 2017 study published in the Lancet Global Health medical journal. The study was conducted after an outbreak of acute toxic encephalopathy in Muzaffarpur.

Hypoglycin A or MCPG affects various processes of metabolism and the breakdown of glucose in the body. This may also lead to hypoglycaemia, a condition where your blood sugar drops drastically, and encephalopathy.

Study says, not just the seed, even the pulp was found to contain MCPG, which was later named hypoglycin-G.

However, it must be repeated, this is affecting the malnourished children alone.

All the sick children in Muzaffarpur have been diagnosed with acute encephalitis syndrome (AES) characterised by an acute onset of fever, inflammation of the brain and clinical neurological manifestation that includes mental confusion, disorientation, delirium, or coma, and predominantly affects children below 15 years.

There are many studies conducted on the naturally-occurring toxins in litchi and the deaths in Muzaffarpur. The studies show the illness occurs only when litchis are eaten in a long gap between consecutive food intakes or after a prolonged fast, especially when the child is undernourished.

The unfortunate, ill-fed children in Muzaffarpur ended up filling their stomachs with freely available litchis grown in unguarded orchards and then returned home. They did not want to have an evening meal. And this became a habit, which caused their sugar levels to drop and their body began to metabolise fatty acids to produce glucose and energy.

The biochemicals from litchi present in their bodies affected the metabolism of fatty acids and the breakdown of glucose. This led them to the inflammation of the brain, which is called encephalitis.

Parents, in general, should be advised to minimise the consumption of litchi and making sure children do not fill their stomachs with litchis alone, which the now-dead children had done. Parents must ensure their children eat something after eating litchis and that they do not go to bed without dinner. Clearly, the Bihar administration failed to spread this awareness in the vulnerable section of the population.

With inputs from Surajit Dasgupta