Toxin Found in Lychee Fruit Connected to Mysterious Epidemic in India

Each year around the time that lychee fruit ripens in northern India, scores of children fall ill

Photo Sasabune Omakase Modified: Flickr/erin/CC 4.0

Researchers have potentially identified the source of an annual epidemic that affects children in one of India’s poorest regions. 

Researchers have potentially identified the source of an annual epidemic that affects children in one of India’s poorest regions.

A mysterious illness that affects thousands of children in northern India each year has been potentially connected to a toxin found in lychee fruit, according to an investigative report published this week by Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, a publication of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Each year, children fill Indian hospitals with symptoms that include convulsions and lapsing into comas. As many as a third of patients die, and then suddenly, the outbreak is over. Until now, the root cause of the illness has entirely eluded researchers.

A number of possible poisons, including pesticides and heavy metals, are currently being tested, but the most likely catalyst is thought to be a toxin found in lychee seeds, which seems to cause a steep drop in blood sugar levels that leads to seizures.

Outbreaks are centered on the city of Muzaffarpur, the region that is the locus of India’s lychee fruit harvest, and the epidemic returns each year as the fruit ripens. Similar circumstances have been reported in lychee-growing regions in Bangladesh and Vietnam, according to The New York Times.

Researchers hope that ongoing testing will confirm whether lychee toxin is the true culprit, allowing them to begin developing an antidote. 

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