Money, research target mystery kidney disease in Americas

In a reversal of its position two years ago, the Pan American Health Organization formally recognized a mysterious form of kidney disease as a major public health threat and pledged $1.7 million to combat it.

Pledging $1.7 million to combat a mysterious kidney disease killing agricultural laborers by the thousands, health ministers from across the Americas passed a resolution last week formally recognizing the disease as a serious threat to public health.

For more than two years, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists has examined how a rare type of chronic kidney disease is afflicting agricultural workers along Central America’s Pacific Coast, as well as in Sri Lanka and India. A recent study estimated that the ailment has killed more than 20,000 people in Central America alone, but scientists have yet to definitively uncover the cause of the parallel epidemics.

Last week’s declaration from the Directing Council of the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) called on member states to conduct research and surveillance of the disease, and to strengthen their occupational and environmental health programs.  It designated several Central American groups, including governments and NGOs, to collaborate.

The policy marks a significant turnaround for PAHO, which in 2011 rejected a proposal by El Salvador to recognize chronic kidney disease in agricultural workers as a distinct new form of illness and designate it as a top public health priority. At the time, the United States played a key role in blocking the resolution because it did not fit the U.S.’s agenda and U.S. delegates were unaware of the ailment’s severity.

El Salvador has since led a campaign by Central American nations demanding greater attention to the disease, and contended that agrochemicals are the primary culprit. Today, chronic kidney disease is the leading cause of hospital deaths in El Salvador, the PAHO resolution said.

Dr. Carlos Orantes, director of El Salvador’s national research and treatment programs for the disease, compared the growing recognition of CKD’s severity to the emergence of HIV/AIDS in the 1980s. “I see this as similar to what happened with AIDS,” Orantes said. “The science advanced together with political advocacy. People with chronic kidney disease of non-traditional causes are people who are not recognized, who are excluded from our public health systems.”


 Subscribe to The ICIJ Global Muckraker by email or get the RSS feed


Email newsletter Find out first! Receive ICIJ's investigations by email


The Denver Art Museum to return four artifacts to Cambodia after Pandora Papers investigation coverage of indicted art dealer

Oct 17, 2021
Baker McKenzie

Pandora Papers investigation prompts new scrutiny of law firms’ role in offshore abuses

Oct 13, 2021

Political and business links to Pandora Papers roil parliaments, anti-corruption and tax authorities as global fallout swells

Oct 12, 2021

Czech prime minister’s party narrowly loses re-election days after Pandora Papers revelations in surprise outcome

Oct 09, 2021

136 countries agree to global minimum tax for corporations in ‘historic’ OECD deal

Oct 08, 2021

Chilean President Sebastián Piñera to be criminally investigated due to Pandora Papers revelations

Oct 08, 2021
ICIJ is dedicated to ensuring all reports we publish are accurate. If you believe you have found an inaccuracy let us know.