DHAKA, Bangladesh — Already the victim of savage annual storms, monsoon floods and epidemics, Bangladesh is becoming increasingly worried about another natural enemy--a poisonous pea.
The chickling pea is a cheap, tasty and readily available source of protein for Bangladeshis, among the world's poorest people.
However, if eaten in large quantities, it can cause a form of paralysis that afflicts up to half a million Bangladeshis, according to unofficial but reliable estimates.
The government is particularly concerned about northern Bangladesh, where an official report says the number of people disabled because of the pea has increased by at least 25% in the last five years.
The pea, whose botanical name is Lathyris sativus , grows in abundance in northern Bangladesh.
It can cause lathyrism, a disease that slowly eats away at the victim's spinal cord. Early symptoms are cramps and stiffness in the legs. Eventually its victims can be paralyzed from the waist down.
Lathyrism is not confined to Bangladesh and afflicts hundreds of thousands of people in other parts of Asia and in Africa as well.
"One (problem) is nobody knows how much one has to eat before it becomes risky," said Peter Spencer, an American scientist attending an international seminar on lathyrism here in October.
Spencer, a neurotoxicologist from the University of Oregon, said it seemes people whose diets consist two-thirds of chickling peas are most at risk.
"We are really alarmed that the victims of (lathyrism) are increasing," said Rezwanul Huq Choudhury, minister for social welfare and womens' affairs.
"We must attack this scourge before it gets out of control," he told the seminar.
But getting the message across is difficult in Bangladesh, where 70% of the population lives below the poverty line set by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization.
"I was sitting in a veranda one morning and then just could not stand up. I felt as if somebody was pulling me down and I had lost all my strength to resist," said Sona Miah, a victim of lathyrism.
"I still did not know if this was due to overeating of (chickling peas), which I used to relish until doctors explained it to me," said the 32-year-old who, like many lathyrism sufferers, now has to scratch a living as a beggar.
Spencer is among scientists promoting a Third World drive to eradicate lathyrism, focusing efforts on producing strains of the chickling pea with much reduced levels of toxin.
He said research over the last 10 years has shown that the pea could become an important cash crop for the Third World if its toxicity could be reduced.
"There is a compelling reason to tamper with this remarkable legume in order to develop a safe strain," Spencer said.
"If we succeed, the pea can be used to reduce malnutrition and related health disorders in Bangladesh, Ethiopia or Sahel.
"You need biomedical, agricultural and socio-anthropological expertise to manipulate the pea. But research has shown that it is possible."