Mystery Disease Killing Thousands in Central America
Earlier this month, the Associated Press broke a story thatís getting surprisingly little attention Ė over the last 10 years, more than 24,000 people have died of kidney failure along the pacific coast of Central America, primarily in Nicaragua and El Salvador. The disease has been seen in smaller numbers as far north as Mexico, and as far south as Panama. In parts of Nicaragua, as many as 1 in 4 men are suffering from chronic kidney disease.
These rates are far higher than anywhere else in the world. And there is a trend among the victims Ė they overwhelmingly work in some form of manual labor. Itís not completely clear whatís causing the epidemic Ė some believe itís tied to the heavy use of pesticides and other toxic agricultural chemicals. However, that doesnít explain why those working in other industries, such as construction or mining, are also suffering from the disease.
Some doctors and scientists have hypothesized that the long, hard hours of work, combined with chronic dehydration and heat stress, may be triggering chronic kidney disease in people who have none of the typical risk factors (including diabetes and high blood pressure).† The connection hasnít yet been proven, but it seems to be the most plausible explanation at present.
There have been reports of similar problems experienced by workers in Egypt, India, Australia, Sri Lanka, and other harsh, hot climates around the world, but not in numbers nearly as high as those in Latin America. Experts suggest this may be because this form of chronic kidney failure has been largely unrecognized in the past Ė itís possible that kidney problems are going undiagnosed in these regions.
While some companies have taken precautions to try to ensure workers have access to water throughout the day, activists say that worker protections tend to be lax, and that there are many people with kidney damage who are forced to continue working due to a lack of alternative job opportunities.
Whatís most troubling is that these new findings regarding dehydration and heat stress arenít being well-publicized among farmers and other manual laborers in Central America. Many of them still believe the increasingly disfavored hypothesis that itís caused by toxins in pesticides Ė and so they arenít taking steps to ensure that theyíre remaining well-hydrated.
Photo credit: The Library of Congress