Researchers have finally uncovered the cause of a mysterious illness that has plagued the town of Muzaffarpur in Bihar, India since 1995: the lychee, a popular type of fruit.
The Lancet Global Health medical journal published a new report this past Tuesday claiming that lychees have long been causing local children to come down with an ailment symptomatically similar to encephalitis, which causes brain inflammation.
The disease, which primarily affects young children around May and June of each year, causes victims to slip in and out of consciousness for hours after seizures and convulsions. Doctors admitted hundreds of children with such symptoms to one hospital in 2014 alone. Of the 390 admitted, 122 died.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and India’s National Centre for Disease Control examined test results from children who had developed the disease and compared them to healthy children. But there was no hint of exposure to chemicals or insecticides or even a bacterial infection in the samples from the sick children.
However, according to the study, the parents of the affected children had overwhelmingly told doctors that their children had returned home in the evening they first got sick “uninterested in eating a meal” after spending a day eating lychees.
It turns out that children afflicted with the mystery disease were six times more likely to have been at a fruit orchard in the 24 hours before they became sick. And it also turns out that the largest lychee farming region in India is Muzaffarpur, Bihar.
According to researchers, skipping dinner caused “night-time hypoglycaemia,” which is when the body starts producing glucose after a drop in blood sugar. But, because unripe lychee seeds have a high quantity of toxins that “severely impair … glucose synthesis,” it caused blood sugars to fall to dangerous levels, leading to brain inflammation.
Now, researchers hope that these findings will help address similar disease outbreaks in lychee cultivation areas in Bangladesh and Vietnam as well.