Are those litchi fruits really fatal for kids? Should you stop buying them now?
If you are a parent and have read the reports quoting a study published by the respected medical journal Lancet, often under scary headlines, these are the questions that would be top of your mind. Onmanorama too carried a similar report.
Is it like if the kids eat litchis, they will get this dreaded disease that regularly kills kids in Bihar's Muzaffarpur, India's largest litchi-growing region?
Before you panic, let's look at the killer condition, its symptoms, and the study in detail.
The study's authors – from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and India's National Centre for Disease Control – looked at the causes of the "outbreaks of an acute neurological illness with high mortality among children occur annually in Muzaffarpur." The children exhibited symptoms of acute encephalopathy, which is a general term describing a disease that affects the function or structure of the brain.
Each year, around May and June, a large number of young children would get admitted to hospitals in Muzaffarpur, with fever, seizures and convulsions. In 2014, of the 390 children admitted to hospitals, 122 died – a fatality rate of nearly a third, which is alarming. It was 44 percent, or nearly half, the year before.
The researchers ruled out infections and pesticides and were guided to look at the role of litchis by the outbreak of a similar condition in West Indies. That outbreak had been traced to a toxin found in ackee fruit, which is from the same family as litchi.
Researchers found the affected kids in Muzaffarpur suffered from low blood sugar levels and brain inflammation, which could link it to a toxin found in litchi seeds and fruits that impaired the body's metabolism.
If you read the study carefully, you will find that it is a not-so-common combination of factors that caused the condition, a combination that may not easily occur in non-litchi growing areas.
This is probably how it happened. The affected children had visited litchi orchards, eaten the fruit and skipped their meals the previous evening. So, the kids ate the litchis from the plants and probably could have also eaten some unripe ones, which have a higher level of the toxin. Then they skipped their evening meals, causing their blood sugar levels to drop.
The toxins in the litchis then interfered with the body's metabolic process trying to produce glucose from the fat stores. That led to the seizures and deaths.
The researchers recommended dextrose treatment; that lowered the death rate in 2014, but the study says lack of aggressive critical care kept the death rate high. The researchers have also not ruled out genetic factors, and undernourishment could have played a part too.
So, do you have to stop buying litchis? The answer is no. But to be on the safe side, ensure that your kids do not skip their meals after eating litchis and that they do not eat unripe litchis (a remote possibility unless you live in one of the producing areas).
Significantly, the deaths have not been reported from non-producing areas. So, you don't have to ban your kids from eating litchis from today.
Go ahead, let them enjoy those luscious fruits, but ensure that they don't skip their meals – something you should ensure anyway.