A wave of chronic kidney disease is devastating communities along the Pacific coast of Central America. Victims are mostly men who conduct manual labor — mostly harvesting sugarcane, according to a report by the Center for Public Integrity.
Analysis of global health data showed that from 2005 to 2009, kidney failure has killed more than 2,800 men a year in the region, the center said.
In Costa Rica, death from the disease is up 16 percent from 2005. In the province of Guanacaste, the regional hospital had to start a home dialysis program because it was overwhelmed with so many chronic kidney disease victims that it began running out of beds to treat patients with other ailments, the center said.
In El Salvador and Nicaragua over the last two decades, the number of men dying from kidney disease has risen fivefold, according to the report. Now more men are dying from the ailment than from HIV/AIDS, diabetes and leukemia combined, it added.
The disease’s cause remains a mystery. A key contributing factor and potential culprit is dehydration and heat stress from strenuous labor, the center investigators concluded. Laborers, typically paid not by the hour or day but based on the amount they harvest, often work to the point of severe dehydration or collapse, potentially harming their kidneys with each shift, said the center. A research team from Boston University, lead by Daniel Brooks, has found it is not just sugar cane workers who are falling ill. Miners and port workers also suffer high rates of kidney disease, yet they’re not exposed to farm chemicals.
What these men have in common is they all work long hours in extreme heat, Brooks told the Center for Public Integrity.
In a preliminary study, Brooks´ team tested blood and urine from sugarcane workers who perform different jobs.
They found more evidence of kidney damage in the workers who have more strenuous jobs outside.
Researchers also suspect that exposure to unknown toxins, pesticides, alcohol or pain medication may trigger the onset of the disease, said the center report.
The World Bank issued more than $100 million in loans to Nicaragua’s sugar industry during the height of the epidemic without formal consideration of the kidney disease among its workers, said the center.
Central America accounts for one-fourth of the United States´ raw sugar imports.
Those with the resources to solve the mystery — the United States and other wealthy nations and international development agencies — largely have resisted pleas to investigate, according to the Center for Public Integrity.