Dear Lancet, its pesticides that killed children, not lychees

Deepika Lobo

Lancet study blaming the lychee fruit for children deaths in India negated by another study that suggests pesticides behind deaths. 

The New York Times had published an article in January with the headline “Dangerous Fruit: Mystery of Deadly Outbreaks in India Is Solved” stating that lychees were the reason for the death of the children in Muzaffarpur, Bijapur in India. Almost six months later, a new study says that it was the pesticides used and not the lychees to be blamed for the deaths.

The new study , published in ‘The American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene’, found that a number of pesticides, including endosulfan, caused brain damage among children.

The article was based on a highly credible medical journal The Lancet, which published a story connecting consumption of the lychee to the deaths of children in Muzzafarpur. In 2014, 122 children died in the Muzaffarpur region.

In January 2017, In The Lancet Global Health, published a study of Indian children where researchers studied 390 patients admitted to the two referral hospitals in Muzaffarpur. The patients were admitted between May 26, and July 17, 2014 with symptoms of acute encephalitis syndrome.

The New York Times mentioned that The Lancet Global health identified a surprising culprit, the lychee fruit itself, when eaten on an empty stomach by malnourished children. The article also said that health officials began urging parents in the area to be sure to feed young children an evening meal and to limit their consumption of lychees.

They concluded that skipping evening meals after consumption of lychee resulted in low blood glucose level and acute encephalopathy that provoked seizures and coma, causing death in many cases.

In the new study, the researchers interviewed families that worked in lychee orchards to conclude that most affected children had consumed ‘unwashed lychees, peeling away the skin with their teeth.’ The report adds that, “eating lychees was not associated with illness in the case–control study. The outbreak was linked to lychee orchard exposures where agrochemicals were routinely used, but not to consumption of lychees.”

Lychees have been consumed in Asia for decades and it is rather surprising that The Lancet published controversial material which was later proved wrong, bringing back the favoured lychee to our tables.

Deepika Lobo  is pursuing Masters in Journalism in St. Joseph’s College, Bangalore.

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