India's tragic encephalitis epidemic has hit a humble fruit, Lychee, and its farmers

  • There have been 129 deaths due to the Acute Encephalitis Syndrome (AES) in Bihar so far.
  • The National Research Centre on Litchi has denied speculations linking litchi to causing the syndrome.
  • The state-run All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), Delhi, will soon study the actual cause behind the AES syndrome, which is listed under 'unknown category'.
129 children have died so far in the Indian state of Bihar due to the latest outbreak of the acute encephalitis syndrome (AES). While poverty and lack of access to healthcare failed the children and their families, a humble fruit, litchi or lychee, is taking the fall for the epidemic. The common ground between litchi and encephalitis is Muzaffarpur, the centre of the outbreak and the country’s biggest litchi producing district.

“We have witnessed around 20% decline in litchi sales in last one week after AES connection with this fruit,” KP Thakur, managing director of a litchi processing and exporting firm, told the Times of India. The fall in demand occurred after the state government of Bihar issued an advisory for parents to not allow their children to eat the fruit. The advisory was based on a speculation that litchi may be the major cause for the encephalitis syndrome, that affects children under the age of 10.

"The cases of AES might be linked to litchi but the disease can be caused by a whole plethora of infections and encephalopathy situations," Professor Sheffali Gulati, Chief of Child Neurology Division, Department of Paediatrics AIIMS reportedly said.

The speculations regarding litchi being the cause for encephalitis gets validity from a research done by the United States in 2005, stating that a toxic substance in the fruit may be the reason.

On the other hand, Vishal Nath, Director of National Research Centre on Litchi, has denied the charge that litchi has any link to the cause of the disease. Litchi is sold in many other countries but we don’t hear such epidemics elsewhere, he argued in an interview with IANS, adding that the fruit was a rich source of vitamin B, Calcium, Potassium, Sodium and phosphorus.

From pride to panic in six months

India exports a part of its litchi produce every year. The government of India wanted to promote the fruit earlier this year by giving it a ‘Geographical Indicator’ (GI) tag. “We have been waiting for GI tag for shahi litchi for a long time. The move has come as a boon for litchi cultivators of the region,” Nath had earlier said adding that the GI tag will fetch them “good money.”

Six months later, the same country is debating whether fruit is lethal for young children.

The real reason

The debate over the dangers of litchi may distract from the actual reason where the national anger must pour over -- poverty and lack of access to basic healthcare, which millions suffer from 70 years after independence.

It’s not just the poor children of Muzaffarpur who ate the fruit, but the ones who died were mostly poor. The United Nations’ Global Hunger Report for 2018 placed India at 103rd spot out of 119 countries.

The National Family Health Survey says almost half of the children under five in Muzaffarpur are stunted, almost 60% were anaemic, and more than 40% were underweight. A health ministry survey found that none of Muzaffarpur's 103 primary health centres - and its only community health centre - were even considered fit for evaluation, the Economic Times reported.

The state-run All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), Delhi, will soon study the actual cause behind the AES syndrome, which is listed under 'unknown category'.

The anxiety of the litchi farmers of Muzaffarpur will continue until the final results of the study are out.

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