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Fewer Litchis, More Glucose, Ending Hunger: How Steps Taken in Time Could Have Saved 125 Children

Fewer Litchis, More Glucose, Ending Hunger: How Steps Taken in Time Could Have Saved 125 Children

Studies carried out in 2013 had drawn a connection between AES and the consumption of litchis. Incidentally, Muzaffarpur is the biggest producer of the fruit in India.

Could simple measures like identifying vulnerable families with underweight children, launching an intensive awareness drive on malnourishment and creating awareness on low sugar levels and using the wide network of ashas and anganwadi workers have helped in preventing the deaths of a hundred children in Bihar’s Muzaffarpur?

Senior officials of the health ministry in New Delhi believe so. A senior official who has been privy to the ground situation in Muzaffarpur has told News18 that these are simple but very doable measures to ensure that children, the vulnerable lot, are not in a state of a seizure and in their death beds when brought to hospitals.

At the time of filing this report, approximately 125 children have been reported dead in Muzaffarpur. The cause has been identified as the dreaded Acute Encephalitis Syndrome (AES). Though doctors confirm that there could be more than just one reason for the AES outbreak the region, experts are banking on findings of the disease published in the British medical journal, Lancet.

The studies carried out in 2013 by the National Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) in India and US-CDC, for the first time, had drawn a connection between the consumption of litchis and AES. The investigation suggested an ‘outbreak of acute encephalopathy in Muzaffarpur associated with both hypoglycin A and MCPG toxicity’.

In simple terms, hypoglycemia or low blood sugar in children is attributed to poor nutrition, sleeping hungry and toxicity referring to methylene cyclopropyl-glycine (MCPG), a chemical found in litchis that affects the brain due to undernourishment.

The advice given (also published in the Lancet) is to minimise litchi consumption, ensure receipt of an evening meal and implementing rapid glucose correction for suspected illness.

The study also drew it conclusions from surveillance that was done at the Shri Krishna Medical College Hospital (SKMCH) and Krishnadevi Deviprasad Kejriwal Maternity Hospital (KDKMH), the chief referral medical centres in Muzaffarpur district. These are the two hospitals that have reported 83 and 17 deaths, respectively, this year alone.

Union Health Minister Harsh Vardhan along with Minister of State Aswini Choubey on Sunday visited SKMCH and promised a slew of measures to improve the condition. A senior official told News18 the Centre’s role is to only advice since healthcare is a state subject.

The advice then to the state has been to increase the number of beds at the paediatric ward of the hospital to 100 and establish paediatric intensive care units in at least 10 districts in Bihar. The suggestion is also to set up five virology labs in the state.

“The minister received several complaints from the kin of the patients on Sunday regarding shortage of doctors and beds,” the official said.

The Union government has already proposed setting up of an-inter disciplinary team consisting of members of the National Centre of Disease Control and Indian Council of Medical Research and representatives of the Ministry of Science and Technology to study the underlying causes of the disease and why acute encephalitis syndrome raises its ugly head sporadically in Muzaffarpur, the biggest litchi producer in India.