SANDAMALGAMA, Sri Lanka — In this tiny Sri Lankan village, rice farmer Wimal Rajaratna sits cross-legged on a wooden bed, peering out toward lush palm trees that surround his home. Listless and weak, the 46-year old father of two anxiously awaits word on whether his body can accept a kidney donation that offers his only chance of survival.
In Uddanam, India, a reed-thin farmer named Laxmi Narayna prepares for the grueling two-day journey he takes twice every week. For most of his 46 years, his job involved shimmying up palm trees to harvest coconuts at the top. He now spends most of his time negotiating the more than 100-mile bus trips he takes to receive the dialysis treatments that keep him alive.
Ten thousand miles away, in the Nicaraguan community of La Isla, Maudiel Martinez dreads returning to the rolling sugarcane fields where he spent most of his teenage years at work with a machete. Blood tests by the sugar company that employed him found that his kidneys were seriously damaged — and exertion beneath the tropical sun could tip the 20-year-old’s health into a lethal spiral.
In three countries on opposite ends of the world, these men face the same deadly mystery: their kidneys are failing, and no one knows why.
A mysterious form of chronic kidney disease — CKD — is afflicting thousands of people in rural, agricultural communities in Sri Lanka, India and Central America. The struggle to identify its causes is baffling researchers across multiple continents and posing a lethal puzzle worthy of Sherlock Holmes.
The three epidemics have crucial threads in common. The victims are relatively young and mostly farm workers, and few suffer from diabetes and high blood pressure, the usual risk factors for renal disease. They experience a rare form of kidney damage, known as tubulo-interstitial disease, consistent with severe dehydration and toxic poisoning.