Experts looking into the annual outbreak of a disease in parts of Gorakhpur in Uttar Pradesh and Muzaffarpur in Bihar, which has claimed the lives of many children, have told The Indian Express that it has nothing to do with the cultivation of litchi. The disease, for the first time, has also led to the deaths of children in Malda district of West Bengal this year.
In the absence of any known pathogen or infectious agent, the symptoms are described as acute encephalitis syndrome (AES). Since those affected reside close to litchi plantations, it has been loosely described as “litchi syndrome” as well. Some experts feel that the children are affected by colouring agents and insecticides used on the fruit crop. However, no connection has been established.
Meanwhile, West Bengal’s Minister of State for Health Chandrima Bhattacharya said Wednesday that children should not eat green litchi. “It contains toxins, which reduces the blood sugar level as well as glucose in the body leading to the infection, particularly in children,” she was quoted as saying in the Assembly.
Dr Vishal Nath, the director of Muzaffarpur-based National Centre for Litchi under the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), said, “We have been working on investigating a correlation between litchi and the AES cases for years, and have performed hundreds of toxicology studies. Last year, we had a team of experts from the Centre for Disease Control in the US, and the National Centre for Disease Control in Delhi. Even this year we have doctors from the field conducting tests everyday…we have established zero association between the two. It is ridiculous to still call the disease a litchi syndrome or associate it with the fruit in anyway.”
Nath pointed out that while the crop begins to bear fruit in the first week of May, the AES cases start surfacing a month later in June, when 90 per cent of the crop has been “picked, sold and disposed of”.
“Our research teams have also busted the theory that children who contract the disease may have eaten the fruit fallen from trees, which may have been touched by rats or bats. Zoologists and toxicologists from multiple agencies have conducted tests and found no toxins in the bodies of diagnosed children or on fruit samples,” Nath explained.
Experts say a history of a similar “AES” outbreak in Siliguri in 1996, which was traced to imported raspberry, might be behind this litchi theory.
Experts at the ICMR’s Rajendra Memorial Research Institute (RMRI), Patna, who have been trying to identify a cause for the outbreaks in Muzaffarpur, said no known cause of the disease was identified yet. “We do not know if there is a pathogen or any environmental factors or infectious agents behind the disease. AES is a term for a broad spectrum of diseases which have encephalitis-like syndrome, including fever convulsions and high mortality, but we do not know what the disease is exactly,” Dr Pradip Das, director of RMRI, said
In-charge of National Centre for Disease Control, Patna, Dr Ram Singh said tests continued…