Beriberi is a disease which is cause by the lack of vitamin B1 or thiamine. The disease is very common in areas in which the inhabitants are suffering from advances malnutrition due to famine or in areas where the diet mostly consists of pure carbohydrates such as white rice and cassava. This disease was particularly prevalent in the last century in Asia due to the reliance on white rice to make up the bulk of the diet. The typical distended stomach of children in famine regions or in regions where white rice makes up more than eighty percent of the diet is due to thiamine difiency.
Although beriberi is not a true food hygiene issue I have decided to talk about it because it does have direct relevance to certain food safety issues.
Executives of the Similac baby food corporation in Israel were taken to court for selling infant milk formula which was lacking vitamin B1 (thiamine). Due to the rarity of the disease in Israel doctors were baffled by the symptoms that the children displayed. the disease was eventually diagnosed by an intern who remembered seeing the symptoms during a section of her studies which she conducted outside of Israel. Once diagnosed the infants were given Thiamine Hydrochloride which helped most of the effected infants to recover within the period a few hours. Some infants died before and shortly after the error was diagnosed and some suffer from severe neurological disorders including partial paralysis.
The executives responsible for the distribution were prosecuted for criminal negligence in the Israeli courts. The Israeli prosecutors office claimed that the executives had prior knowledge to the fact the formula which they buy from Germany was devoid of thiamine. The case continues.
Vitamin B1 is found in a wide range of foodstuffs but particularly in whole grain bread, eggs, cereals, whole grain rice, meat, yeast, fruit, green vegetables and legumes. Lack of vitamin B1 can cause high levels of lactic acid and pyruvic acid to develop in the blood due to the fact that lack of the vitamin interferes with the aerobic metabolism of glucose by interfering with the breakdown of glucose molecules, causing the body to function on an anaerobic pathway.
Indications of beriberi include fatigue, lethargy and complications of the disease effect the nervous, muscular, gastrointestinal and cardiovascular systems. the milk of a mother who has thiamine deficiency often causes the child to suffer from the deficiency as well. Beriberi can also be found in chronic alcoholics ans sometimes in patients who have undergone gastric bypass.
Symptoms of the disease include severe weight loss, fatigue, emotional disturbances and sensory perception, weakness and pain in the limbs, edema (swelling of body tissues) and irregular heart rate. When cases reach the advanced stage heart failure and death are not uncommon.
Beriberi causes wasting of peripheral tissues and nerves which leads to partial paralysis. It can also leas to a lack of sensation in the skin tissues. Beriberi can be cured by giving the patient a thiamine rich diet but the return to functionality will be much slower than by administering thiamine via injection.
The likelihood of seeing beriberi in the western world is very slim but if you are feeding your baby on milk formula it is worth knowing something about the symptoms of this condition to prevent the terrible tragedy that happened in Israel from happening again.