Mysterious Kidney Disease in Sri Lanka: Nalaka Gunawardene answers BBC’s questions

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?