Every year, a mysterious illness strikes the poorer children living in the town of Muzzafarpur, India. Hundreds are admitted to hospital from around mid-May, peaking in June, with seizures and swelling on the brain after waking up in the night screaming. Of those who suffered the condition, around half tragically die.
Now researchers have identified the cause of this distressing illness, putting it down to consuming large amounts of lychee fruit on an empty stomach. Muzzafarpur is India’s largest lychee growing region, and doctors found that the condition coincided every year with the lychee harvesting season, mainly impacting those from the poorest socioeconomic background.
They suspect that the poorer children, who may not have eaten that day, are eating the fallen fruit from the orchards without realized that it could be having fatal consequences. Lychees produce a large amount of a toxin called hypoglycin that stops the body from synthesizing glucose. This leads to dangerously low blood sugar levels, or hypoglycemia. This made them less likely to eat, exacerbating the illness, and eventually causing them to have seizures and slip into unconsciousness.
With so many children dying, an investigation was launched by the US Centers for Disease Control and the National Centre for Disease Control, India, with their results published this week in The Lancet. It bears a close resemblance to a similar situation that developed in the Carribean, in which children were also suffering convulsions and swelling of the brain.
Those cases, however, were found to be down to another plant, the ackee fruit. Related to the lychee, when consumed unripe from the tree the fruits have massive levels of the same toxin, hypoglycin. It turns out that the concentration found in the flesh of the fruit only diminish when it is allowed to fully ripen, something which is now taught to children in the region.
Following the discovery of the cause of the illness in India, health officials have told parents to make sure that their children get full meals in the evening, and to restrict the number of lychees they eat. Since this has come into place, the number of cases has been dramatically cut from hundreds per year to 50.