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Mystery illness killing thousands of Latin Americans, spreading fast

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)
February 14th, 2012
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

A silent, mysterious killer that has already claimed tens of thousands of lives in the past decade is stalking the manual laborers of Central America. At least one in four Central American men are already silently afflicted.  As the death toll mounts, local and international authorities are scrambling to identify the culprit, and to halt its spread.

CHICHIGALPA, NICARAGUA (Catholic Online) - As reported by the AP, since 2000, at least 24,000 workers across Central America have died from the onset of kidney failure, many victims between the ages of 30 and 50. The prime commonality appears to be that the sick and dying men are manual laborers, particularly those working in construction, agriculture, and mining. The disease also affects women, but in much lower numbers.

It is believed that one-in-four men across the region has signs of Chronic Kidney Disease (CKD). The Pan American Health Organization has also reported that incidence of the disease is also rising rapidly, doubling in the past decade alone. 

However, no specific cause has been identified. All that's understood is that the men develop kidney failure and suffer painful deaths. Adding to the mystery is the regional nature of the disease. Such rates of CKD are seen nowhere else in the world, except Central America. 

In an effort to understand what's happening, the Costa Rican government has launched a full investigation into the widespread prevalence of CKD across the region. The government and health ministries of other Latin American countries are intently following the study.

The disease seems most concentrated in El Salvador and Nicaragua but has been documented as far north as southern Mexico and as far south as Panama. Local health officials have declared the disease an epidemic and have blamed it for overwhelming local health systems. 

Since few of the workers have access to regular medical care, they often do not know their kidneys are on the verge of failure until toxins build up in their body to the point they cause suffering. At that point, death is inevitable, but can be delayed with dialysis. Very few have access to such care, and those that do may spend years administering dialysis treatment to themselves several times a day until they finally die. 

Many workers are quick to blame pesticides for the epidemic. This is a reasonable assumption, since workers are not afforded the protections that are standard in many other parts of the world. However, because the disease also afflicts construction workers and miners, and is observed across a wide area, researchers believe the cause is more complex. 

The most likely cause appears to be chronic dehydration. Latin American workers toil for very long periods in exceptionally hot conditions. Protection from the sun, as well as an adequate supply of drinking water is a rarity. With workers exposed to these conditions, some from the age of 10 onwards, the near-daily stress on the kidneys causes rapid development of disease and ultimately failure sometime during their middle-aged years. 

Yet even the dehydration hypothesis is just that - an educated guess. Other theories include overuse of pain medication and consumption of locally produced alcohol. 

Still, a few - and only a few, aren't taking any chances. At least one sugar plantation, the Ingenio El Viejo, has already started supplying workers with a hydrating solution that it now requires them to drink throughout the day. The company has also started working with doctors to develop plans to prevent CKD onset in workers.

For now, workers across all of Central America continue to eke out their living toiling in the heat of the sun and risking their lives as they work without many of the protections others across the globe take for granted. All the while, a silent killer stalks them, leaving each to wonder not if -- but when the first signs of illness will appear and claim their lives in agony.

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