A Mysterious Epidemic Plaguing Central America May Be Linked To Climate Change

A mysterious disease has been sweeping through the sugar cane fields of Central America, with more than 20,000 laborers dying from it over the past decade. As of 2012, it had killed the husbands of more than 100 women of the 250 families living on one island in Nicaragua, giving rise to the grim nickname “Island of the Widows.”

“Chronic Kidney Disease of nontraditional causes,” as researchers have called the condition, attacks the kidneys and prevents the body from eliminating waste and excess fluid. As the name suggests, no one really knows what causes it. A new report, however, shows that researchers may be getting closer to an answer. And there are signs that a solution, too, could be close at hand.

Some studying the epidemic have wondered if toxins like pesticides or heavy metals may be making the workers sick, but Richard Johnson, a kidney specialist at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus, had a different theory. About four years ago, when Johnson first heard about the deaths in Central America, he wondered if chronic dehydration might be a factor. Laboring in the sugar fields is hard, hot work, and there’s been increasing evidence that dehydration may cause kidney damage. During the harvest season, sugar cane workers toil in extreme heat for long hours, and they don’t necessarily have access to fresh water.

The research Johnson and his team conducted in Nicaragua and El Salvador, published last week, confirmed at least part of his theory. They found that the laborers suffered serious dehydration on a daily basis, and routinely worked in conditions exceeding the recommended heat standards of the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration. This research could also help answer another question Johnson has been pondering: Could the 20,000 people who died in Central America be victims of —> Read More