The Encephalitis breakout has resulted in the death of over 150 children in Bihar. Muzaffarpur is the worst affected district, which has recorded the highest number of deaths.
One of the reasons for the breakout of the disease was believed to be Litchi fruit. The fact that the fruit is greatly harvested in North Bihar, particularly Muzaffarpur, further seemed to have corroborated the fears.
While experts are still divided on whether or not Litchi is the real culprit, cultivators of the fruit have been severely hit because of dropping sales.
Curbing Imports, Dropping Sales
As per The Times of India report, the AES outbreak in areas of Bihar bordering Nepal has affected vegetable and fruit export exports to the neighbouring country from the state. Reportedly, Nepal authorities have asked customs check posts to disallow vehicles laden with vegetables and fruits to enter if they fail to produce quarantine certificates. Quarantine is used to restrict the movement of people and goods to prevent the spread of disease.
Small farmers are being asked to go to the adjacent town of Raxual to obtain the certificates. Desperation has forced a lot of these farmers to sell their fruits and vegetables at throwable prices.
Litchi business, which is otherwise very lucrative in Muzaffarpur, has been hit post the outbreak. Traders from other states have either refused to purchase or are paying paltry amount giving the pretext of the encephalitis.
After Odisha health minister Naba Kishore Das asked the public food safety commissioner to test the quality of Litchi from Bihar, the traders stopped procuring the fruit.
Bacha Singh, president of Litchi Utapadak Sangh told Newsclick, “It is completely wrong to have singled out litchi for AES. Litchi farmers have been affected as the demand of litchi has drastically dropped from outside. The departments concerned of the Centre and the state government should do something to dispel the misinformation.”
BJP member from Bihar Pratap Rudy, while speaking during the zero hour debate, said that linking Litchi cultivated in the state to the death of children in the state was a “conspiracy”.
Is Litchi Actually The Main Culprit?
In Bihar, Muzaffarpur district has seen the largest number of the death toll. Muzaffarpur is called the ‘Litchi bowl of India’, given the extensive cultivation there.
The victims of this outbreak have largely been children from poorer households. A 2017 study published in reputed The Lancet linked the occurrence of encephalitis to the consumption of Litchi. As per the researchers, children from these households often consume widely available litchi on empty stomach. Lack of food combined with toxins hypoglycin A and methylenecyclopropylglycine (MCPG) present in litchi was the cause behind the illness.
However, a few medical practitioners have rejected the link between the two. They argue that if consuming litchi were the cause, it would affect other regions which cultivate this fruit. Many believe that high humidity and temperature are the cause behind its outbreak. Poor healthcare services and inadequate arrangements at hospitals further worsen the situation. Notably, a Muzaffarpur-based National Research Centre on Litchi director Vihal Nath said that there was “no scientific connection between the disease and the fruit.”
Most of the experts are of the opinion that malnutrition is the major reason behind the death and the blame mustn’t be shifted to litchi. Arun Shah, a Muzaffarpur-based paediatrician who has been following AES for the last 20 years says, ‘It’s absurd to blame litchi for AES, malnourishment the real cause’. Bihar is one of the most malnourished states of the country.