MUZAFFARPUR: Lush orchards heaving with bundles of litchis are a common sight in Muzaffarpur at this time of the year. But, the outbreak of Acute Encephalitis Syndrome (AES), which has claimed lives of over 150 children in Bihar, has hurt the local litchi industry.
Muzaffarpur’s famous fruit, which was in demand even in the PMO and the Rashtrapati Bhawan, now has no takers even in its home state.
Local traders claim they have lost lakhs of rupees due to theories linking the fruit to AES. According to Baccha Singh, president of Bihar Litchi Producers’ Union, litchi sales worth Rs 100 crore suffered due to the bad name given to the fruit by a group of “uninformed” people. Some farmers have told this newspaper litchi is rotting on the trees. The AES outbreak in the state seems to have caused an economic crisis as well.
However, there is a clear divide among experts on whether the AES-related deaths were due to litchi consumption.
While many reports, including one in the reputed science journal Lancet, have linked litchi with AES, local experts disagree. In 2012-2013, a two-member team led by virologist Dr T Jacob John after analysing AES cases in Muzaffarpur said a toxin found in litchi was responsible for causing hypoglycaemic encephalopathy.
'Litchi is consumed all across, why did AES not break in those areas?'
In 2017, a joint study by Indian and American researchers and published in Lancet confirmed the role of the toxin called methylene cyclopropyl glycine (MCPG) found in the fruit and blamed MCPG for a catastrophic fall in the child’s blood sugar, when consumed on an empty stomach. That was more likely to happen to a poorly nourished child with no reserves of glucose, the chemical form that sugar takes to be digested by the body, doctors declared. Doctors at the Sri Krishna Medical College and Hospitalwhere most of the AES affected children were brought disagree with the theory.
Medical Superintendent of SKMCH SK Shahi says, “There is no proof to show that deaths are linked to litchi. Dr Jacob John suspected litchi to be a cause but this could not be established.” Patna-based senior pediatrician Dr Arun Kumar Thakur who in 2014 had co-authored the Standard Operating Procedure for Bihar government along with UNICEF to help contain the disease, echoed a similar opinion as Shahi.
Some experts argue that if the same chemicals that are apparently causing fatalities among children in Muzaffarpur are found in other fruits which are widely consumed here and in many other parts of the country then how can only litchi be blamed. Director of the National Research Centre on Litchi Dr Vishal Nath is one of them.
In fact he goes further and calls the theories linking the fatalities to Litchi as “misinformation campaigns.” “Litchi is consumed all across the country then why did AES not break in those areas? Many fruits, including mangoes, guavas, etc, are acidic in nature. Consuming it on an empty stomach may result in some abnormalities but certainly those compounds don’t turn deadly,” says Nath, who has been working at the Muzaffarpur-based research centre for 11 years.
Despite local experts rejecting linkage of litchis with AES, the fruit has created fear. The Mustafapur village, for instance, which is surrounded by litchi groves, has hardly any takers for the fruit. Munay Kumar, a litchi trader, says his family has suffered a loss of at least Rs 3 lakh this year. Saraswati Devi, whose husband has an orchard of 150 litchi trees, is worried. “A box of litchi that sold for Rs 800-1,000 is now selling for Rs 250-300.”