What's Killing Central America's Young Men?

Researchers try to explain widespread kidney disease

By Matt Cantor,  Newser Staff

Posted Feb 8, 2014 2:30 PM CST

(Newser) – Kidney disease is ravaging Central America, and researchers aren't sure what's causing it. Thousands of sugarcane field workers have died of chronic kidney disease, or CKD, in recent years, the Verge reports. While CKD affects more than 20 million in the US, here it's most prevalent in those over 70. But in Central America, "it seems to be disproportionately affecting young, healthy males," says an expert. "And that's one of the tip-offs that something odd is going on." Exact, reliable death rates aren't available, the Verge notes, but it's so bad that one community, La Isla, is now called La Isla de las Viudas—"the island of widows."

In Nicaragua and El Salvador, the CKD death rate among men is five times what it was 20 years ago. A number of theories have been put forward to explain the situation: It may be caused by dehydration among field workers, particularly when combined with their habit of chewing sugar cane while working. There are also concerns about chemicals used in the fields. Last month saw a protest calling for employers to pay workers' medical bills. But a photographer who visited Nicaragua reports "a sort of stoicism" at funerals occurring daily. "I couldn't help but wonder, ‘Why aren't you guys more pissed off?'" See his work illustrating the tragedy here.

A former sugar cane cutter is shown during a protest in Chichigalpa, Nicaragua, Friday, Jan. 10, 2014.   (AP Photo/Esteban Felix)
A former sugar cane cutter and chronic renal failure patient is aided by friends towards the blocked gate of the San Antonio sugar plantation in Chichigalpa, Nicaragua, Friday, Jan. 10, 2014.   (AP Photo/Esteban Felix)
A former sugar cane cutter rests in front a main access gate of the San Antonio sugar plantation, blocked during protests in Chichigalpa, Nicaragua, Friday, Jan. 10, 2014.   (AP Photo/Esteban Felix)
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