Emilio was diagnosed with a chronic kidney disease of non-traditional origin, also known as Mesoamerican nephropathy (MeN). The disease causes a progressive loss of kidney function, affecting the kidneys’ ability to perform vital functions such as ridding the body of waste and toxic substances. MeN is endemic in Central America and has caused tens of thousands of deaths in the region in the last two decades.
While little is known about the cause of MeN, it’s thought to be predominantly linked to occupation, and there is growing evidence that points to strenuous work, heat, and insufficient rehydration as risk factors.
“[It] differs from chronic kidney disease because it [predominantly] affects young men without a history of chronic disease, who generally work in agricultural crops, in extreme physical conditions, with high temperatures, in impoverished environments," said Dr. Frida Romero, a medical anthropologist with Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF).
Escuintla Department, a site of agricultural production, has the second-highest prevalence of chronic kidney disease (CKD) in Guatemala. In August 2021, MSF began health promotion campaigns in Escuintla to raise awareness about the disease—predominantly within communities most at risk, including sugar cane workers and people living near agriculture fields. MSF teams also screen, diagnose, and provide direct medical care to people in the early stages of the disease in the community and in local health centers in La Gomera, La Democracia, and Sipacate municipalities in Escuintla.