A New Form Of Chronic Kidney Disease May Be Caused By Climate Change

While we’ve known for some time that climate change does indeed impact the health of people around the world — ranging from making mental health problems worse to spreading infectious diseases — a recent article in the New England Journal of Medicine suggests that climate change is on the verge of causing a pandemic of kidney disease.

Salon notes that chronic kidney disease has already led to the deaths of thousands of agricultural workers across the world, and is being called “sentinel disease” in the era of climate change, according to Dr. Cecilia Sorensen, an emergency medicine physician:

“The disease, described as chronic kidney disease (CKDu), ‘grows with environmental exposures (to heat and humidity) that are directly influenced by climate change,’ she said.

The first cases of chronic kidney disease appeared in the 1990s when El Salvadoran sugar cane cutters began showing up in medical clinics with symptoms of renal failure in its final, fatal stages. Most of the workers were otherwise healthy, and only in their 30s or 40s, far too young for such an illness. They also didn’t have the usual diagnoses of high blood pressure or diabetes that are known to do damage to the kidneys. By 2012, chronic kidney disease had taken the lives of 20,000 people.

Dr. Sorensen says the disease is now “potentially global” and similar patterns of kidney disease have been seen in North America, South America, the Middle East, Africa, and India. It has also begun to appear among people who work outdoors in the United States, most notably in California, Florida, and Colorado’s San Luis Valley.

While 20,000 deaths are alarming, the problem is going to get worse:

“But as temperatures continue to rise, it’s likely this deadly disease will appear more frequently and devastate thousands of laborers worldwide. An estimated 125 million people were exposed to heat waves between 2000 and 2016, according to the World Health Organization, and this trend is expected to continue and to worsen.”

The recent surge of chronic kidney disease is believed to be caused by working in the heat, some doctors believe it may also be exacerbated by heat stress and dehydration. But Sorensen notes that certain facts cannot possibly be denied:

“What we do know for certain is that CKDu is related to heat exposure and dehydration.”

Another obstacle to making a cause and effect determination, Sorensen warns, is that it’s often not diagnosed correctly when symptoms first appear:

“She explained it’s difficult to understand the lead cause of chronic kidney disease because conditions that are often exacerbated by heat exposure — like cardiovascular and respiratory disease, poor mental health and adverse birth outcomes — are often ‘erroneously reported as the primary diagnosis, which conceals the role of heat as an inciting factor.’ As a result, almost all physicians have ‘likely cared for patients who were adversely affected by climate change,’ she said.”

All of this means that physicians will have to keep a close eye on what symptoms their patients have and not dismiss any possibility as to a final diagnosis. Health care providers, Sorensen remarked, will “have to integrate environmental information into clinical and public health practice and build robust early-warning systems focused on vulnerable communities and climate-sensitive diseases.”

But perhaps most importantly, we also have to face the fact that climate change is indeed affecting the health of people, and will continue to unless and until something is done:

“‘We are now living in an era when climate change is no longer a distant, existential threat,’ (Sorensen) said. ‘It is happening now, and it is affecting human health in profound ways.'”

Featured Image Via Pixabay

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Andrew Bradford

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