Lychee, a favorite in Hawaii, linked to mysterious illness in India

Lychee (Sunrise interview)

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Lychee is ubiquitous in the islands, but it's also believed to be the culprit in a medical mystery in India that's responsible for the deaths of 100 children.

Should Hawaii worry? Probably not, a University of Hawaii nutrition professor says.

"This is an unusual situation," Alan Titchenal said.

For more than 20 years, seemingly healthy children in northern India would wake up ill in the morning, sometimes suffering seizures and slipping into comas. In some of these cases, the children would even die.

But no one could figure out what the real problem was, until now.

"First, they didn't connect it with lychee at all, they thought it was all kinds of other problems, but children kept being brought into the hospital, usually in the morning -- seizures, maybe even comatose -- and they tried to figure out, is it an infection," Titchenal said.

But just this week, a break in the case: A report published in the British medical journal The Lancet Global Health linked the mystery illnesses to lychee eaten on an empty stomach by malnourished children.

Most of the victims were poor children in an area where lychee orchards were all over the place, researchers said.

The journal's authors said lychee contained a compound that caused a drop in blood sugar levels, which were already low because they weren't eating dinner to begin with. That's why many of these children would suffer acute swelling of the brain, leading to severe convulsions and loss of consciousness.

But in Hawaii, where the fruit is commonly consumed, Titchenal said it's highly unlikely that people would suffer the same effects.

For one, the children in India were malnourished. And they were eating lots and lots of lychee, he said.

"You can get too much of almost anything, so keeping a balance is important," he added.

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