KEBITHIGOLLEWA, Sri Lanka — For two decades, chronic kidney disease has been a mystery and death sentence in Sri Lanka, striking 15 percent of the residents of its north central region.
This summer, after years of secretive official research, a glimmer of scientific hope emerged. The government and World Health Organization announced in June that they identified a key cause of the disease in Sri Lanka: chronic exposure to arsenic and cadmium, likely consumed in food.
Yet in a disease that has confounded experts across continents, even potential breakthroughs come with asterisks. The new report left huge questions unanswered — including where in the country the toxins were found, how they entered the food and what foods were contaminated. The key unsolved question: the extent fertilizers and pesticides contributed to the outbreak.
In Sri Lanka’s lush northern farmlands, the mystery and the death sentences continue. Lacking firm answers from the scientific community, some victims’ best hope for survival comes through the spiritual community — and offers of kidney transplants from Buddhist monks and those they inspire to make extraordinary sacrifices for strangers.
At 21, Sampath Kumarasinghe is among the victims awaiting that miracle.
The soft-spoken farmer was diagnosed last September with kidney damage so severe it had reached its terminal phase: end stage renal disease. Healthy his entire life, he suddenly became feverish and too sick to work in the rice paddies. His mother mortgaged their land to pay for his medical care, and they began the search for a kidney donor. One day, like a vision, a man appeared in his hospital offering to donate his kidney.
“I am only thinking of ways to save my son’s life,” said Sampath’s mother, Punchirilalage Dingiri Manike. “That is what I think of day and night.”