Litchi, Poverty, Death: Is it a mystery or ignorance?

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Litchi or lychee is believed to have originated in China. At present, China is the largest litchi producing country and India along with China accounts for more than 91 percent of the world litchi production. Bihar produces almost 75 percent of total India’s litchi production. Litchi is the livelihood for millions of people as it provides both on-farm and off-farm employment and its cultivation is the livelihood security for a large population, especially in the state of Bihar.

In recent years, Muzaffarpur district of Bihar— which is also famous as ‘The Land of Litchi’ and has won international encomiums for its delicious Shahi litchi and China litchi - has been in news for the death of numerous poor children because of Acute Encephalitis Syndrome (AES) occurring during harvesting time of litchi. This year the number of children dying because of AES has stirred a nationwide debate and recently The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) sent notices to the health ministry and Bihar government over the increasing deaths of children in Muzaffarpur.

In a country like India where there is hardly any scientific temperament, the death of poor children in Muzaffarpur has been/is being attributed to a number of reasons. Even researchers for sake of proposing unique theory or theory different than other research groups or for reasons better known to them have failed to unequivocally find the reasons and put pressure on government for implementation of their findings at ground level. Poorest health infrastructure for poor children has not helped much either.

Muzaffarpur children deathMuzaffarpur children death

In a recent study titled 1 ‘Methylenecyclopropyl glycine, not pesticide exposure as the primary etiological factor underlying hypoglycemic encephalopathy in Muzaffarpur, India’ which is published in the international journal Toxicology Letters by Asthana S et al., it was clearly established that it is Methylenecyclopropyl glycine - found in semi ripe pulp of litchi (four to five times higher than the ripe pulp of litchi) - which causes hypoglycemic state in malnourished/undernourished children. They concluded that “The affected children generally belong to the families of the farmers and laborers harvesting litchi. The fruits are generally sold in bunches but there are many fruits that fall on the ground and are generally free for being picked up by the hungry children or the fruits may be directly plucked from the litchi plant. These children may not distinguish between the ripe and the semi-ripe or an unripe litchi fruit, thereby consuming these fruits, that may further deplete the left over glucose and sustenance of this hypoglycemic state for an extended period of sleep during night, becomes fatal.”

They confirmed their findings by observing induction of hypoglycemia in Litchi fed starved rats. Similar kind of apprehensions and findings have already been reflected few years back by other researchers also 2.

Why is seasonal litchi encephalopathy a relatively recent event in India, Bangladesh, and Vietnam? The most plausible explanation is the rapid expansion of commercial litchi production across Asia and beyond 2. However, as back as in 1995, the Chinese print media (China largest producer of litchi) and local educational campaigns warning the public of the dangers of litchi increased in litchi-cultivating zones.

Since 2000 in China, only one pediatric case of litchi disease has been reported (in 2001). Of the 48 adult cases of litchi disease reported since 2000, all except one occurred in 2015. All 48 patients received emergency treatment with 50% glucose, and 47 survived 3.

I wish that such measures have also been adopted and lives of so many children could have been saved. I wish that researchers were quick to find out and learn that what policy China has against such conditions, after all they are largest producer of litchi.

It is saddening that in spite of all this, the issue is yet not being handled with utmost sincerity. Heat waves, rain fall, and all other arguments are begin thrown to digress and divert the real issues - issue of poverty, malnutrition and lack of awareness creation for intake of litchi among local labourers or owners. After all, for whom the lives of poor children matter? Sometimes it dawns on me - Life or death, both are tragedy for poor children!

1. Somya Asthana, Sumita Dixit, Anshuman Srivastava, Arvind Kumar, Sheelendra P. Singh, Anurag Tripathi, Mukul Das. Methylenecyclopropyl glycine, not pesticide exposure as the primary etiological factor underlying hypoglycemic encephalopathy in Muzaffarpur, India. Toxicology Letters 301 (2019) 34–41.

2. Peter S Spencer, Valerie S Palmer. The enigma of litchi toxicity: an emerging health concern in southern Asia. The Lancet Global Health Volume 5, Issue 4, April 2017, Pages e383-e384.

3. Li Jie Zhang, Robert E Fontaine. Lychee-associated encephalopathy in China and its reduction since 2000. The Lancet Global Health Volume 5, Issue 9, September 2017, Page e865.


Siddharth Suman, Ph.D.
Postdoctoral Fellow
OHSA/B01
Laboratory for Nuclear Materials
Nuclear Energy and Safety Division
Paul Scherrer Institute
Forschungsstrasse 111
5232 Villigen PSI
Switzerland

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