For the last two decades, hundreds of children in Muzaffarpur, India, have fallen ill with a mysterious illness, causing seizures, brain fogginess, and even death. Until recently, no one could quite figure out what was going on, but new research indicates that eating lychees, a fruit popular in the country, may be the culprit behind the acute brain disease.
Every year between May and July, hundreds of children in the region were admitted to the hospital, each suffering from similar symptoms. Just in 2014, 390 children were sent to the hospital and, of those, 122 died. Locally, the disease was named “chamki ki bimari,” or “tinsel disease.”
Muzaffarpur is well known for its lychee cultivation, and researchers began to notice the timing of the illnesses coincided with the peak growing season of the fruit. Looking at data collected from several years and particularly the 2014 outbreak, researchers from U.S. and Indian health agencies determined pesticides, pathogens, or other contaminants were not the cause. Instead, they discovered natural toxins within the lychee itself were making the children sick.
The children’s ages ranged from 6-months-old to 14-years-old, and many of them had low blood sugar glucose when they became ill. According to the parents, their children would often spend the day eating lychee fruit in the local orchards and not make it home in time for an evening meal. The researchers found children who did not eat dinner the night before were more likely to become sick with the mysterious illness.
As reported by Gizmodo, the lychee, otherwise known as litchi, contains a substance known as methylenecyclopropylglycine (MCPG). This chemical is thought to cause low blood sugar in animals and likely humans as well.
Another fruit related to lychee, the ackee fruit, contains a compound called hypoglycin A. This chemical has shown to cause neurological problems in people who eat the fruit. However, there has been no definitive study yet that confirms a link between eating lychee fruit and brain illness.
Seeing a pattern emerging, researchers began testing urine samples of affected children in the region. Lychees were also collected from local orchards.
The urine samples did not indicate any signs of infection or exposure to insecticides. Yet, they did reveal a significant concentration of MCPG and hypoglycin A in the children’s system. Additionally, the lychees examined also contained the two chemicals, with the highest concentrations in immature lychees.
“This is the first confirmation that this recurring outbreak in Muzaffarpur is associated with litchi consumption and both hypoglycin A and MCPG toxicity,” the researchers wrote, as cited by Gizmodo.
Low blood sugar from not eating dinner the night before, combined with the effects of hypoglycin A and MCPG, may be the cause of the children’s symptoms. The researchers believe the outbreaks are probably caused by a combination of poor nutrition, eating lychees, and other unrecognized genetic variances.
Still, the research is inconclusive. There is certainly “a plausible, but not necessarily sufficient” link between eating lychee fruit and the condition, wrote the researchers.
While the brain disease outbreak in India may not necessarily be solved, health officials have cautioned parents to limit the amount of lychees eaten by their children. They also encourage children to eat dinner every night. Since these new recommendations were announced, less than 50 children have been sickened during the last two lychee growing seasons, according to the New York Times.
Similar outbreaks of children developing an acute brain disorder after eating lychees have been reported in the Indian state of West Bengal, as well as parts of Vietnam and Bangladesh. The investigation of the mysterious illness in Muzaffarpur was a joint effort by India’s National Center for Disease Control and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia. The findings were recently published in the medical journal, The Lancet Global Health.
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