The Pacific coast of Central America is suffering through an epidemic that is incredibly mysterious to experts. The epidemic has killed over 24,000 people in El Salvador and Nicaragua since the year 2000 and has infected thousands of more people by causing kidney problems at a rate that has not been seen anywhere else. Reports of this problem have been made in Panama and in Mexico.
Dr. Maria Isabel Rodriguez, the health minister for El Salvador, asked for international help last year because she said the epidemic was not being solved by traditional health programs.
Wilfredo Ordonez worked for 30 years in Bajo Lempa in El Salvador. He was struck with the mysterious disease ten years ago and now gives himself dialysis treatment four times per day.
“This is a disease that comes with no warning, and when they find it, it’s too late,” Ordonez said.
The majority of those affected by the disease have been manual workers or those who worked in the sugar cane fields. Doctors and other experts in the area feel that the chemicals used on agriculture are to blame for the problems. These chemicals have been used for years and are not subjected to the same protections and tests that more developed countries require.
Another theory, which is becoming the most popular one, involves hours of labor in extreme heat with not enough hydration. The workers affected by the epidemic work hours on end in blazing temperatures without proper hydration, which pushes the body to the extreme.
“The thing that evidence most strongly points to is this idea of manual labor and not enough hydration,” said Daniel Brooks, a professor of epidemiology at Boston University’s School of Public Health.
There are experts who will not rule out manmade causes because long hours and intense heat are not unknown to the region of Central America.
“I think that everything points away from pesticides,” said Dr. Catharina Wesseling. Wesseling is an occupational and environmental epidemiologist. Wesseling is the regional director of the Program on Work, Health and Environment in Central America. “It is too multinational; it is too spread out. I would place my bet on repeated dehydration, acute attacks everyday. That is my bet, my guess, but nothing is proved.”
A University of Colorado kidney specialist, Dr. Richard J. Johnson, is working to find a cause of the disease. He does believe that it could be dehydration.
“This is a new concept, but there’s some evidence supporting it,” Johnson said. “There are other ways to damage the kidney. Heavy metals, chemicals, toxins have all been considered, but to date there have been no leading candidates to explain what’s going on in Nicaragua. As these possibilities get exhausted, recurrent dehydration is moving up on the list.”
In 2000, there were 466 deaths related to kidney disease in Nicaragua. In 2010, that number jumped to 1,047. El Salvador saw 1,282 deaths in 2000 and then 2,181 deaths in 2010.