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26 January 2018

Kidney diseases in sugarcane plantations in Central America: confirmation of the views on working conditions

In 2013 HesaMag magazine published an article on a mysterious epidemic of diseases affecting the kidneys of farm workers on sugarcane plantations in Central America. The author of the article suggested that they may be linked to a combination of harsh working conditions, heat and dehydration. The results of a study published in the January 2018 edition of the Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment & Health would appear to confirm this hypothesis.

Over the course of a five-month harvest, an international team, led by epidemiologist David H. Wegman (University of Massachusetts Lowell), compared two groups of farm workers on two sugarcane farms in El Salvador (one situated on the coast and one inland at a higher altitude).

At each of the farms the workers were divided into two groups: one group continued to work under the same conditions as before; the other was given drinking water reservoirs, mobile tents and scheduled rest periods.

A drop in glomerular filtration rate, an indication of kidney damage, was observed in both groups, but it was less pronounced in the intervention group. The authors of the study believe that new research, carried out over a longer period of time, is needed before confirming that the introduction of programmes to combat dehydration and fatigue can prevent chronic kidney damage among sugarcane cutters.

The disease, known as chronic kidney disease of unknown etiology (CKDu), is now an epidemic in countries around the equator: Central America and Mexico, India and Sri Lanka, and Egypt.

In Central America alone, the epidemic of kidney diseases will have been responsible for the deaths of 20 000 workers on sugarcane plantations.

CKDu is so fatal in part because it is hard to detect. In the early stages of the disease, the patients show no symptoms; by the time a diagnosis is made, the damage to the kidneys is irreversible, leading to high blood pressure, weakness, sleep problems, nausea and vomiting, weight loss.

More information:

Wegman, D., et al., Intervention to diminish dehydration and kidney damage among sugarcane workers, Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment & Health, vol. 44, n°1, January 2018 - Abstract

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