I am not a public health or environmental expert, but have long covered related topics as a science journalist.
Among my long-standing interests are the downstream health and environmental effects agrochemicals – both chemical fertilizers and farm chemicals applied against pests and weeds. Parallel to this, I have also been covering chronic kidney disease of uncertain aetiology (CKDu), a mysterious illness that has been affecting thousands of Lankan farmers for nearly 25 years.
A link between agrochemicals and CKDu is suspected, but not yet scientifically proven (even though environmentalists ask us to believe so). It is a current yet contentious topic, which I chose for my presentation to an international workshop on “Pesticides and Global Health: Research, Collaboration and Impact” held at the Department of Anthropology, University of Durham, UK, on 10 – 11 February 2015.
In my presentation, I explore the topic from the angle of public perceptions, which are largely shaped by what appears in the media. This has been problematic since mass kidney failure in Sri Lanka has been compounded by what I call a ‘mass media failure’.
Most of our media have failed to understand, analyse and report adequately on this public health emergency. Instead of helping affected people and policy makers to work out solutions, some journalists have become amplifiers of extreme activist positions. This has led to alarmism and policy confusion.
What is to be done? There are no short-cuts to the scientific investigation process which must follow – that means further research is needed to find definitive evidence for causative factors. That could take a while, given how people are exposed to multiple environmental, lifestyle and genetic factors.
But meanwhile, the welfare of those already affected by the disease and their families needs to receive greater public support. Environmentalists trying to score points from this tragedy overlook this vital humanitarian aspect.
A few excerpts from the presentation below. See full presentation above.
As a science journalist, I have been covering scientific aspects of the public health emergency of mass kidney failure that has killed an estimated 20,000 persons in Sri Lanka over the past two decades.
It emerged in the early 1990s, when hundreds of people in Sri Lanka’s Dry Zone – heartland of its farming — developed kidney failure without having the common causative factors of diabetes or high blood pressure.
Most affected were men aged between 30 and 60 years who worked as farmers. The disease built up inside the body without tell-tale signs or symptoms, manifesting only in advanced stages.
Over the years, many scientific studies have been carried out on what causes this mysterious disease, now called Chronic Kidney Disease of unknown aetiology, or CKDu. Various environmental, geochemical and lifestyle related factors have been probed. Researchers now suspect environmental and genetic factors as causes – but a definitive link to a specific factor has yet to be found.
On 23 January 2015, I answered a few questions posed by BBC World Service (radio) on CKDu, to feed a news report they were producing for global broadcast.
My full answers are shared here in the public interest.
Science writer Nalaka Gunawardene responds to questions from BBC World Service on the mysterious mass kidney failure in Sri Lanka: 23 January 2015
Question 1: What are the various theories that scientists have put forward as a possible cause for this disease which has been studied for 20 years?
Question 2: As a science journalist, you’ve been tracking the research on this public health concern for some years. What do you think is most likely cause?
Question 3: The World Health Organisation supported research has suggested a link with agrochemical use. Don’t you think that such a link is likely?
Question 4: The new government of Sri Lanka has just pledged to give high priority to the kidney disease. What are the challenges faced by the government in dealing with this crisis?
This week’s Ravaya column (in Sinhala) is a preview of a key challenge being taken up at the UN Conference on Sustainable Development being held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, this month. I raise the question: how can Sri Lanka transform its economy into a green economy in pursuit of sustainable development?