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Mystery of killer litchi

Litchi is being most commonly blamed for the Acute Encephalitis Syndrome (AES) outbreak in Bihar. The mystery fever has already killed more than 100 children in Muzaffarpur district, which is famous for litchi.

The toxic substance in lychee causes Acute Encephalitis Syndrome (AES), locally known as Chamki Bukhar, which is a form of brain fever that happens due to the inflammation of the brain. The symptoms of AES include fever, vomiting and unconsciousness or onset of seizures. This condition affects only young children, mostly under 10 to 15 years of age.

The luscious fruit is only a triggering factor for malnourished children as the toxin Methylene cyclopropyl-glycine (MCPG) can lead to hypoglycaemia (fall in sugar levels). So, if a healthy child eats litchi, s/he will not suffer from AES.

Why is the toxin more dangerous for undernourished children?

In well-nourished children, reserve glucose is stored as glycogen (glucose polysaccharide) in the liver. Whenever the glucose level goes down, glycogen is broken down into glucose and circulated in the blood for use. But undernourished children lack sufficient glycogen reserve that can be converted into glucose. Therefore, the natural mechanism in undernourished children is unable to correct the glucose level in blood, leading to hypoglycaemia.

Normally, when glycogen reserve in the liver is exhausted or is not sufficient, the body converts the fatty acid (non-carbohydrate energy source) into glucose. But in the presence of the litchi toxin, the conversion of fatty acid into glucose is stopped midway. As a result, no glucose is generated and the low blood glucose level is not corrected by the body.

How does the toxin cause coma and even death in children?

The toxin acts in two ways to harm the brain and even cause death. Because of the toxin, the body’s natural mechanism to correct low blood glucose level is prevented thus leading to a drop in fuel supply to the brain. This leads to drowsiness, disorientation and even unconsciousness. When the toxin stops the fatty acid conversion into glucose midway, amino acids are released which are toxic to brain cells. The amino acids cause brain cells to swell resulting in brain oedema. As a result, children may suffer from convulsions, deepening coma and even death.

Still research is being carried out on this issue, precaution is far better than cure so my advice is to have litchi fruit in limited quantity as well as make sure that no child goes to bed without eating a meal.

The following precautions to keep in mind while eating litchi and other fruits:

· Do not eat too many litchis in one sitting

· Do not eat unripe litchis

· Make sure you trust the vendor you buy from because the fallen fruit is more prone to this toxic

· Do not eat litchis on an empty stomach since it is acidic in nature and can cause discomfort

· After eating litchi try not to skip meals

· Do your research on the information before believing and sharing.

· Risk is at a peak when the fruit is harvested commercially in May and June and when the day temperature is above 40 degrees Celsius.

As litchi is a good source of several vitamins, minerals, and healthy antioxidants. So “Don’t stop eating litchi but follow these precautions before you eat”

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