It is a real pity that the very special fruit grown in Muzaffarpur, Bihar, is getting flak for causing the recent spate of deaths in young children in that region. When it comes to common everyday ailments like bloating, indigestion or lethargy, it isn’t unreasonable to blame one or the other particular food that one consumes.
But making a connection between the lychee fruit and an occurrence of death is a bit far-fetched and convoluted, to say the least. It is true that the deaths of the children is coinciding with the lychee season, but this season is also when the heat wave is at its peak and the humidity levels are high.
Data clearly shows that all the children hit by AES (Acute Encephalitis Syndrome) are those living below the poverty line. These malnourished children belonging to the marginalised sections of society were in this semi-starved state to begin with. The statistics that indicate stunting and wasting of children in this region are as bad as they are in sub-Saharan region, if not worse, with one in every two children being undersize. The stunting of children is not an overnight occurrence, but happens over a period of time when the nutrition is compromised. Our very own National Survey’s (NHFS 4) data has clearly indicated the dismal state of the under-5 children in this region. The visuals available of these children only confirm this sorry state of malnutrition and poverty.
A malnourished child is a very vulnerable one at a higher risk for various infections and reduced chances of surviving an insult. In these circumstances, it was AES that threw them off the edge and not the consumption of a few lychees as it is being made out to be.
What may be of interest is the fact that all plants produce some amount of toxins in a bid for self-preservation. Strawberries contain some amount of acetone (which is also found in nail-polish remover), and lychee has small amounts of the toxin MCPG (Methylene Cyclopropyl Glycine). However, the small quantities of these naturally-occurring pesticides in fruits do us no harm when we eat them. The exceptions are in cases when there is some contamination in the crop (bacterial or viral), or chemical pesticide residues in large quantities, and they are ingested without adequate washing and cleaning processes.
Some of these children (do note that many children who fell prey to the disease did not consume the fruit) did eat a few lychees that had fallen to the ground while their parents were labouring in the fields. This was the only food they had eaten before bed. These children usually go to bed hungry with low blood sugars. Low blood sugar due to insufficient food is evident, not due to eating lychees and the toxin present in it that blocked off the metabolic pathway, as is being proposed.
In such circumstances, the children need food security and nutrition security to help them grow into healthy productive individuals. Lychee can be a part of the healthy meals, as it has always been in the summer season. Moreover, all proposed links to the fruit and deaths have been inconclusive. I do hope these points come across clearly in the investigative reports that are underway.