In the last three days, nine babies aged three to five have died in Malda district after showing symptoms that suggested acute encephalitis syndrome (AES).
A seasonal disease for years in Uttar Pradesh’s Gorakhpur and Bihar’s Muzaffarpur, AES appears to have broken out in West Bengal for the first time, alarming scientists who are wondering if the children got infected from the colouring agents and insecticides used on litchi crops.
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AES is also loosely described as litchi syndrome with some experts attributing the infection to litchi trees under which children tend to play.
In Malda, the deaths and affected children have been largely from around a litchi plantation, say district officials. The connection between the crop and the disease, however, has not been conclusively established.
A team from the School of Tropical Medicine in Kolkata is in Malda to investigate the deaths and its members told The Indian Express that the disease does resemble AES, which has been known to affect children between April and July.
As of now, at least two dozen children are admitted at Malda Medical College and Hospital where the hospital authority has arranged for a quarantine ward.
The children belong to Kaliachak area, from where huge consignments are exported every year.
“All of the children who died aged between three and five are residents of villages in Kaliachak. Their parents are either involved in litchi cultivation or live near the plantation. The symptoms are of AES, which affects the brain get affected. They suffer convulsions and vomiting, and have high fever with extreme shivering. Though we have advanced apparatus in our child wards, this disease does not allow much time for a doctor to treat the patient. This is litchi syndrome as we suspect it,” said M A Rashid, vice-principal of Malda Medical College.
The STM team includes an entomologist, virologists, pediatrics and physicians. Prof Bibhuti Saha, head of tropical medicine at STM, said, “I am yet to get a detailed report from Malda. But as far as litchi syndrome is concerned, children get infect from the insecticide and colouring agents used by farmers.”