Mystery Kidney Disease Targets Men in Central America

Close contact with pesticides and exposure to toxic chemicals? Overconsumption of alcohol and painkillers? Heat stroke or just overworked? Health officials, concerned charity workers and medical researchers are racing against time to find out why the male population of six Central American countries are increasingly suffering from chronic kidney disease and dying by the thousands.

Chronic kidney disease seems to have acquired epidemic proportions in the sugar-cane cultivation areas of Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala, Costa Rica etc which is known as the sugar belt of Central America.  The disease is rampant in men who work for more than 12 hours each day in the sugarcane fields under extremely hot and trying conditions.

The small community of La Isla near Chichigalpa, in Northwestern Nicaragua has been hit so hard that it has been labeled “The Isle of Widows.” The problems of the native villagers are compounded by the fact that  their access to proper medical treatment is very limited. With death of male members, the bereaved families are forced to live in severe poverty with no form of income. There are reports that rate of chronic kidney failure in this community has reached 41% with 7% of the cases in the terminal stage.

According to BBC reports, chronic kidney disease has become the second biggest cause of death among men in El Salvador. In Nicaragua, the disease is a bigger killer of men than HIV and diabetes combined. Another worrying aspect is that researchers and health authorities are divided in their opinion as to what is actually causing men in their prime years to become so sick. Without a clear verdict, there can be no viable solution to this epidemic.

Doctors working in rural health clinics blame unbridled use of pesticides, rampant alcohol consumption and taking of painkillers by the sugar cane workers to be the major causes of the high incidence of chronic kidney disease.

Researchers working on behalf of World Bank disagree. They think that heat stress combined with long hours of strenuous manual labor is the root of the problem, although they admit to be baffled by the epidemic.

“The disease has, essentially, been a death sentence once you get it,” said BUSPH researcher Daniel Brooks, an associate professor of epidemiology who leads the group. “We don’t often have public health epidemics where we really have no idea what the cause is. In this case, that is the situation.”

Professor Aurora Aragon of Nicaragua’s National University in Leon agrees with the assessment. Sugar cane workers are paid according to how much sugar cane they cut. This impels workers from extremely poor communities to push themselves to limits beyond human endurance. Day after day, year after year, these men work under extremely hot conditions which over a period of time take s a deadly toll on their kidneys which stop functioning properly.

Workers suffering from kidney disease complain of dizziness, nausea and fever. Most need dialysis just to stay alive but receive little or no help from both the government and the sugar cane companies. Lack of other employment opportunities in the area forces these men to keep on working in the ‘killer’ fields in spite of their failing health and this is driving them even faster to their graves.