Lychee toxins cause deadly brain disease among children

Northern India has witnessed the 31 tragic deaths of children in the span of last 10 days due to lychee toxin poisoning. The toxins are believed to cause a deadly brain disease in young children.

Health officials informed that majority of the deaths were reported from two hospitals in Bihar’s Muzaffarpur district. The district is famous for its lychees as they flourish in the reigon’s tropical climate. Thus, they are widely eaten by the people in that area.

The children affected by this brain disease showed symptoms of Acute Encephalitis Syndrome (AES), which manifests in the form of high fever and subsequent inflammation of the brain. AES is a deadly viral infection that is usually contracted from mosquitoes.

Muzaffarpur and neighbouring districts have been recording the outbreak of this disease for over 20 years, with 2014 recording 150 deaths, the highest in one year. This disease is believed to cause a fatal metabolic disability called hypoglycemic encephalopathy. This affects only children, particularly those with poor eating habits.

The lychee toxins are particularly bad when consumed on an empty stomach. The chemical found in the translucent fruit, called Methylene cyclopropyl-glycine (MCPG) affects the brain when body sugar levels are low due to undernourishment or otherwise, reported The Telegraph.

The number of AES cases recorded in 2019 so far are 48, eight more than 2018’s figures. But the Bihar government have only confirmed 11 deaths due to AES. Due to the increase in number of AES deaths, the union health ministry has assigned a special team to get to the root cause of the disease.

The cases of death in children is feared to rise in the coming months due to the vast population of undernourished children that live in the vicinity of the lychee gardens. Due to food not being available, the children end up eating lychees on an empty stomach, that then have deadly consequences.

“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 40 degrees celcius,” said Ashok Kumar Singh, a senior health official, to AFP. He also further told that the children who succumbed to the disease, all suffered a sudden drop of glucose level in the blood. Around 40 other children who are complaining of similar symptoms are currently being treated in hospitals.

Bihar’s Chief Minister Nitish Kumar recently highlighted the importance of avoiding eating lychees on an empty stomach. “"It seems that in the last two years there was drop in the number of cases, but this time it has hit once again. The awareness campaign was not done properly," he said.

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