More than 110 children in India have died this month from encephalitis, with more than 430 others requiring hospitalization. Health experts thus far have not been able to establish the root of the outbreak. Doctors and officials are testing children for a variety of conditions.
Encephalitis has been striking in the eastern state of Bihar for more than two decades, hitting Bihar’s Muzaffarpur district particularly hard. At the Sri Krishna Medical College and Hospital, some 95 patients have died in the current outbreak. Most of the victims have come from poor rural families. The state has announced it will cover the cost of treatment for all patients affected.
Encephalitis is an inflammation of the brain, caused by any one of a number of viruses. The first symptoms to appear are often similar to those of flu, high temperatures and headaches. In Bihar, the affected children were typically taken to hospital with fevers. With encephalitis, the symptoms can worsen quickly and can lead to seizures, paralysis, and coma.
Health experts are still working to determine the cause. Recent studies have suggested that natural toxins in lychees could be responsible. Muzaffarpur is a major hub for growing lychees, which ripen at this time of year. However, in about half of the more than 400 studied cases of encephalitis, the children had not consumed lychees.
Another culprit could be severe dehydration. Many children suffer from dehydration as heat waves regularly sweep India. Or it could be a combination of the two, as eating lychees could exacerbate dehydration symptoms. According to the Associated Press, scores of people in India suffer from encephalitis each year during the summer monsoon season, with children younger than 15 being the most vulnerable.