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Mystery kidney disease killing Sri Lankan farmers

Published:Monday | January 19, 2015 | 12:00 AM
Sri Lankans collect purified water distributed by a government supplier in Padaviya, Sri Lanka. A chronic kidney disease that has already killed up to 20,000 people over the past two decades and affects anywhere from 70,000 to 400,000 more in the country's North Central rice basket, remains an enigma without a name, baffling doctors, researchers and even the World Health Organization for two decades.

A mystery kidney disease is killing Sri Lankan farmers. The first cases surfaced some two decades ago in the country's North Central province, the main rice-producing area. Since then, the disease has killed up to an estimated 20,000 people on the Indian Ocean island nation.

The cause of the disease, which affects an estimated 70,000 to 400,000 people in Sri Lanka's rice basket, continues to baffle doctors and researchers. Even the World Health Organization (WHO) hasn't been able to pinpoint what's killing as many as 10 people a month in Karunawathie's village - ravaging one house while sparing the next - as it creeps farther and farther into neighbouring areas.

The disease mirrors equally confounding conditions plaguing thousands of farmworkers in parts of India, Egypt and Central America. The problem has become so dire in one part of Nicaragua, it's been dubbed the "island of widows".

No one cause has been identified, but theories abound. Many believe a combination of factors could be at play - from toxic algae and hard ground water to heavy metal exposure and high fluoride in drinking water. Other suspected causes include chronic dehydration and the heavy use and misuse of agrochemicals. In Sri Lanka, fertiliser use is among the heaviest in the world.


Speculation about causes


The media have reported voraciously on all probable causes, including one group's claim that a vision from God led them to discover arsenic as the source.

The latest paper blames glyphosate, the country's top weed killer that's well-known worldwide as Roundup. That hypothesis, published in a little-known open-access journal last February, suggests the agrochemical, introduced by United States-based Monsanto, forms a bond with heavy metals in food and drinking water that eventually destroys the kidneys. Glyphosate has been detected by the WHO in 65 per cent of those sickened by the mystery kidney disease.

Despite millions spent on numerous studies in Sri Lanka - some led by distinguished local researchers and others conducted using questionable methodology - new cases continue to emerge and the death toll continues to climb.