The mystery fever in Muzzafarpur has killed almost 100 kids in the past one month and litchi is being blamed for the outbreak of brain fever. Naturally so, advisories have been rolled out in relation to the consumption of litchi and many people are staying away from it because they fear dangerous consequences.
We spoke exclusively to Muzaffarpur-based pediatrician Dr Arun Shah about the crisis. He has been keeping a close eye on the infamous Acute Encephalitis Syndrome (AES) for the past 20 years.
Talking about the 2016 research which was carried out by renowned pediatrician and epidemiologist Jacob John into the AES, Dr Shah shares, “Everyone is conveniently blaming litchis and misinterpreting the findings of the study that was done. People must know that the real culprit is malnutrition and not litchi. If you look at the profile of children who have succumbed to the brain fever or who are reporting symptoms, you’d know they all belong to the poorest of poor families and roam around the litchi orchards in this terrible heat wave the whole day eating whatever they can find, unripe, raw or rotten litchis. They go back home and sleep empty stomach, and wake up in the morning reporting serious AES symptoms.” The doctor also points out that if litchi alone is to be blamed for the deaths, then how come there are no death cases in the urban Muzaffarpur.
To put it clearly, the member of the Indian Academy of Pediatrics adds, litchi contains a toxin called MCPG, which can lead to drop in the sugar levels of malnourished children (called hypoglycemia), and that is why if a healthy child eats litchi, he will not suffer from AES. So litchi is just a triggering factor and not a reason in itself.
Dr Shah wants all parents from that area to ensure they make their kids eat dinner before they go to bed every night. Also, he feels kids should not be allowed to go to the orchards. Moreover, the child should be rushed to the hospital immediately after the onset of symptoms. Not many people realise, delay in treatment makes most cases fatal. “I want all doctors to immediately start empirical treatment as soon as the child is brought to the hospital. They should continue the investigation but should not delay treatment.”
Other than litchis, pesticides and the virus that spreads through bats are also other triggers. “But I insist, litchi alone is the not the causal factor of AES, it is just a triggering factor.”
Also, we need to understand that AES is not a disease but a syndrome which comes under not only hypoglycemia but also Japanese encephalitis, meningitis, malaria, typhoid and other diseases. The common symptoms are sudden onset of very high fever, loss of consciousness and convulsions.
It is imperative that authorities do not put the blame on litchis – it is time they think about the poor litchi farmers!