Why blame litchi?
Bihar is struck by an epidemic that has claimed mostly children from 1-10 years of age. This alarming situation with the outbreak of Acute Encephalitis Syndrome (AES), locally called 'chamki' fever is characteristic of high temperatures beyond 42 degree Celsius; investigations revealed some crucial facts pertaining to what has been the apparent cause of the ailment. It is cited by local health authorities that the blood sugar levels of AES patients are quite low and a toxin contained in litchi fruit has been detected in urine samples of two-thirds of them. Union Health Minister Dr. Harsh Vardhan went on to say that 'extreme rise in the heat with humidity and litchi fruit' is the cause of the epidemic. The most relatable element of this frantic situation is the cornered and almost criminalised litchi fruit which is at massive risk of falling out of favour in its peak season, also putting in peril the business of vendors of the fruit in the region that produces the fruit in major amount. Dr. Arun Shah, a Muzaffarpur-based paediatrician has researched on the syndrome and studied it for that past two decades, has significantly dissipated doubts saying that the fruit is only a triggering factor for malnourished children; clarifying that the culprit is not the litchi fruit but malnourishment. If litchi was the lone culprit, then anyone consuming litchi would have reported some symptoms of ailment and there would be deaths reported from urban Muzaffarpur too instead of just the rural regions. The profile of the children who have succumbed to the brain fever or those who have reported of the symptoms point out to some very basic factors: they belong to the poorest families, roam litchi orchards in the scorching heat throughout the day eating whatever they find – unripe and rotten litchis included. They go home and sleep on an empty stomach and wake up the next morning reporting serious AES symptoms. Litchi contains a toxin called MCPG which can cause a drop in the sugar levels of malnourished children leading to hypoglycemia. This is why the fruit does not affect a healthy child, establishing that litchi is only a trigger factor and not the cause. As a matter of precaution, it is important to make sure that children do not go to bed without having their dinner and avoid going near orchards as pesticides and the virus that spreads through bats are also other triggers.