Since 1995 a mysterious Brain illness has been seen in hundreds of children in Muzaffarpur city of Bihar State, India. Every year during the months of May-June, children used to fall sick suddenly, some of whom would slip into a coma, and about 40 percent of them even died – often within hours. Similar outbreaks were reported in few other Litchi growing regions in India like Uttar Pradesh’s Gorakhpur and West Bengal’s Malda, also in Vietnam and Bangladesh. The mysterious disease termed as Litchi-Syndrome showed symptoms of Acute Encephalitis Syndrome (AES) like sudden seizures, brain swelling and loss of consciousness, sometimes leading to death within five to six hours. The initial symptoms included high fever, extreme shivering and spells of vomiting.
Litchi, lychee, liechee, liche, lizhi, li zhi, or lichee is a famous tropical and subtropical fruit known for its unique flavour and taste. Inside the Litchi fruit is a delicate, whitish pulp with a floral smell and fragrance, which is usually eaten fresh, and also used in many different dessert dishes. Litchi-Syndrome virus affects the brain causing swelling and the aforementioned consequences, the definite reasons of which were not revealed until January 2017.
Reasons Behind Mysterious Deaths Revealed
The deaths caused due to the Litchi-Syndrome have been a mystery for many years. In 2013 the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the National Centre for Disease Control in India (NCDC) started an investigation into the outbreak in Muzaffarpur, the results of which were published in The Lancet Global Health Journal website thelancet.com on 30 January 2017.
The mysterious deaths were primarily reported in Muzzafarpur, which happens to be India’s largest litchi growing region, and notably, the outbreaks occurred every year during the litchi harvesting season. The doctors found that the children who became victims to the Litchi-Syndrome virus ate large amounts of the fruit on empty stomach, were not well nourished and also mentioned there could be some yet unidentified genetic differences. Litchis produce a large amount of a toxin called Hypoglycin that stops the body from synthesizing glucose. This leads to dangerously low blood sugar levels, or Hypoglycemia, leading to acute encephalopathy, seizures, coma and causes death in many cases.
Suggestions to Prevent Litchi-Syndrome
After coming to know the definite reasons behind the Litchi-Syndrome outbreaks, health officials advised parents in the affected areas to make sure that their children take full meals in the evening, and to limit the consumption of litchis they eat. These measures they said would prevent cases of the illness during the ‘outbreak period’. In case of suspected illness, the doctors suggested rapid assessment and correction of hypoglycaemia, i.e. low blood sugar.