In the wake of the continuing deaths of children in the state due to suspected encephalitis, Bihar Health Minister Prem Kumar on Friday ordered a probe to investigate if the consumption of the litchi fruit is responsible for the deaths.

A team of agriculture scientists and horticulture officials will visit the affected areas, informed Kumar, adding that it was widely believed that litchis could be one of the reasons behind the Acute Encephalitis Syndrome (AES) outbreak in Muzaffarpur. Notably, Muzaffarpur is known as the litchi hub of the country.

So far, more than 115 children have died over a period of 20 days with a majority of the victims from the Dalit and poor families.

An AES outbreak is normally reported during the litchi harvest season in summer, although till date, it has not been officially verified that the virus is caused by the fruit.

Even as luscious litchis are being blamed for deaths of children in Bihar’s Muzaffarpur district, health experts and researchers have stoutly denied the role of the fruit in the outbreak of suspected encephalitis.

“I have been treating the patients suffering from this disease for the past 14 years. I also conducted a research on this disease in 2005. It has nothing to do with litchis. The disease occurs primarily due to high temperature and humidity,” said Dr Gopal Shankar Sahani, head of the paediatric department with the state-run Sri Krishna Memorial College and Hospital (SKMCH) at Muzaffarpur, which has reported the maximum number of deaths of children.

Dr JP Mandal, another paediatrician and associate professor with the SKMCH, made similar observations.

“The mystery disease has no connection with litchis. Normally, the disease appears some two months before the fruits come or end of the litchi season. So how can anyone blame litchis for this disease? This is, in fact, a viral disease. Maybe the litchi gardens are helpful for the spread of this virus but it is yet to be identified,” explained Dr Mandal.

Bholanath Jha, a litchi grower, blamed the mango lobby for such rumours against litchis.

“Litchis are being blamed for this disease under part of a conspiracy. Mango lobby is involved in this conspiracy. While mango remains available at barely Rs 30-40 a kg, litchi is sold at the rate of Rs 200-250 a kg depending on their quality. Bihar exports litchi and hence repeated attempts are being made to discourage litchi farmers,” he alleged.

(With agency inputs)