Mysterious Kidney Disease Killing Sri Lanka’s Farmers

A mysterious kidney disease has been killing thousands of farmers in Sri Lanka’s rice basket, and as it spreads, locals are becoming increasingly fearful, reports the Independent.

In 20 years, the disease has killed up to 20,000 people and sickened up to 400,000 more; some villages report it causes as many as 10 deaths a month.

As the disease progresses and kidneys fail, sufferers become unable to pass liquids on their own, and are prohibited from drinking more than just a bottle of water a day — their extremities retain water and become fat with fluid.

Similar diseases are wiping out thousands of farmers in parts of Central America, India, and Egypt, according to the Associated Press. In hard-hit Nicaragua and El Salvador, some believe agrochemicals are the problem, while others think years of prolonged dehydration in the baking heat is shutting workers’ organs down.

In Sri Lanka, a report published by the World Health Organization two years ago found kidney disease in 15 percent of adults across three affected districts. The WHO report documented raised levels of cadmium and lead in certain plants and vegetables, such as lotus root and tobacco. Some question whether these heavy metals could be leaching into the soil and groundwater from pesticides and fertilizers, which have been found to have high levels of cadmium in previous studies.

According to the Independent, the government placed a ban on some agrochemicals since the WHO report came out, but it has not been enforced and the pesticides remain available.

“Without it, it’s difficult to get rid of weeds,” says Ajith Welagedara, a backyard farmer who mixes a stronger-than-recommended amount of glyphosate, the country’s most popular weed killer, and sprays it while walking barefoot without gloves or a mask. “I’m concerned, but there’s no other way.”

Hundreds of villagers visit rural health centers regularly, even daily, to have their vitals taken and urine sampled as longstanding fear turns to widespread panic reports the Associated Press.

Dr. Rajeeva Dassanayake, a kidney specialist at the area’s largest hospital in Anuradhapura, tried calming the crowds.

“You need not fear and flee from this place,” he said. “There are a lot of things being said by many people. Until they have finished fighting each other and come up with an answer, we can say nothing.”

The country of 20 million, which emerged from a quarter-century of civil war in 2009, has just 183 dialysis machines, forcing most villagers to receive less than the three recommended weekly treatments. Since no national cadaver transplant program exists, many patients post desperate newspaper ads with their photos and blood types pleading for kidney donors according to the Independent.

[Image via The Independent]