...In 2013, at the request of India’s ministry of health and family welfare, John camped in Muzaffarpur, Bihar, where many of the deaths had occurred. “Children there were found having low blood sugar levels which aided metabolic diseases,” John said.
Only undernourished children living near lychee orchards appeared to suffer during May and June, when the fruit is harvested. “The victims had signs of brain cell damage and seizures, indicating that a toxin and not just undernourishment was causing the disease,’’ John said.
MCPG forms compounds with carnitine and coenzyme A, making them less available for important metabolic reactions in the body. When a person is fasting, stored glycogen is released initially for energy production. Later, body fat is mobilised and this requires the breakdown of fatty acids aided by carnitine and coenzyme. “When this metabolism is impaired, hypoglycemia develops,” Maya Thomas, a paediatric neurologist at CMC Vellore, said.
The toxin is seen in high concentrations in the seed and semi-ripe pulp. “Children who are malnourished are most vulnerable as they have low glycogen stores,” Thomas said.
While MCPG was known to be present in lychee seeds, the study established its presence in the flesh of the fruits as well, said John.
Immediate treatment for victims includes administration of glucose, John added: “Villagers have been told to let children eat the fruit only after a meal.”