Researchers studying an annual outbreak of mysterious illnesses among children living in India’s northern state of Bihar believe they might have found the cause – lychee consumption.
Since 1995, cases of an acute neurological illness have been reported in Muzaffarpur, the largest area for cultivation of the fruit in the country, between the months of May and July. They peak in June to coincide with the month-long harvesting season.
Between May and July 2014, the 390 patients with symptoms of the illness were admitted to two hospitals in the area. Of those, 122 died.
In a study published in the medical journal The Lancet, researchers said the humble fruit looks likely to have caused seizures and sometimes death in children. Previous studies attributed the illness to a virus or heat stroke.
Though the outbreaks had been reported for nearly 20 years, until 2014 the cause of the unexplained illness wasn’t thoroughly investigated, the researchers said.
The team from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, the National Centre for Disease Control, India and other Indian health officials conducted blood and urine tests on the patients and tested the lychees for pesticides, pathogens and toxic metals. They also tested the fruit for naturally occurring toxins.
They ruled out pesticides, medicines or metals exposures as the cause but did find that between 45% and 64% of the patients tested had traces of the naturally occurring toxins from lychees in their urine.
Parents in said between May and June, young children frequently spend their day eating litchis in the surrounding orchards miss dinner. They found that children who had skipped the evening meal were more likely to fall ill.
The authors of the study recommended minimizing lychee consumption among young children, making sure they have an evening meal during the outbreak season.
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