The Indian government issued a statement Wednesday advising children to henceforth “minimize litchi fruit consumption” in affected areas, and eats an evening meal during the “outbreak period.”
In a development that raises a number of profound and fundamental questions about the phenomenon of Indian science research being misappropriated without proper attribution, a study recently published in the Lancet has identified the consumption of the litchi fruit as the causative factor responsible for the death of scores of young boys in the Muzaffarpur region of Bihar.
Published by India’s National Centre for Disease Control and the India Office of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, the study documents the authors’ close scrutiny of 390 children, under the age of 15, in Muzaffarpur over a 2-year period as the NY Times notes.
According to the study, consumption of the litchi fruit, this contains high levels of hypoglycin and a toxin called MCPG, by malnourished children results in a significant reduction in blood glucose levels and causes acute brain swelling.
Phenomenon of mystery illness
As the Times of India notes, Muzaffarpur has been plagued by the phenomenon of a mystery illness, characterized by seizures and a changed mental status, for over two decades. While there were many rumors about possible causes for this phenomenon, ranging from infectious encephalitis to pesticide exposure, this study puts all those rumours to rest by identifying the precise cause of the illness.
While this is doubtless a welcome development which equips doctors and Muzaffarpur residents with the information needed to prevent a recurrence of the illness, what makes it especially fascinating is this article by Priyanka Vora in Scroll which demonstrates how the connection between this illness and the litchi fruit was established by doctors more than two years ago .
As Vora notes, Dr. T. Jacob John and Dr. Mukul Das published a paper in Current Science in May 2014 which explored the hypothesis that the consumption of hypoglycin and MCPG found in litchi fruits by malnourished children is the cause of abnormally low blood sugar levels, resulting in their eventual death.
To be sure, allegations by Indian scientist’s commentators that their findings discoveries have been misappropriated by their western counterparts without any attribution are by no means a new phenomenon. Indeed, India’s oft-repeated assertions that some of mankind’s most significant discoveries – from reproductive genetics to plastic surgery to the aero plane – were first made by Indians is but a concrete manifestation of this propensity.
While what the authors of the Lancet study did may not constitute copyright infringement stricto sensu, inasmuch as they merely borrowed the ideas embodied in the papers published by Dr. John and his colleagues and not their mode of expression, their claim of plagiarism, prima facie, does appear to carry force. For those interested, the difference between copyright infringement and plagiarism was explained by Devika in a lucid fashion.The reason why these allegations, if true, are so significant is also because they point to a need for Indian scientists and science journals to develop the where with all to claim sole and exclusive credit for finding and hypothesis that are rightfully theirs.
Analysis of blood and spinal fluid samples showed no signs of infection or exposure to chemicals and insecticides. However, most of the children who had fallen ill had eaten lychee fruit recently. They were also six times more likely to have visited a fruit orchard in the last 24 hours, the study said. Muzaffarpur, Bihar, is the largest lychee farming region in India.
According to the study, parents reported that children in the affected villages spent most of the day eating lychees from the surrounding orchards, often returning home in the evening “uninterested in eating a meal.”