Reaching the Core
Liberty University student researches kidney disease, reaches broken hearts
CHICHIGALPA, Nicaragua—Nicknamed “the land of the widows,” Chichigalpa suffers from the mysterious and deadly Chronic Kidney Disease (CKD), which has killed more than 20,000 Pacific coast sugar cane workers in the past two decades, according to the Guardian.
Per Nicaragua’s official website, the municipality is known for its sugar and rum industries in the Chinandega Department of Nicaragua. Chichigalpa also houses the country’s largest sugar refinery, Ingenio San Antonio, rests among the sugarcane fields of Chichigalpa. Flor De Caña, one of Latin America’s most beloved rums, is also produced in the town.
Many of the men in Chichigalpa work in the sugarcane industry, spending hours each day harvesting crops in the heat of the sun.
“The decline in kidney function during the harvest and the differences (in kidney function) by job category and employment duration provide evidence that one or more risk factors of CKD are occupational,” a report from Boston University said.
Because the industry makes up about five percent of the country’s GDP, the needs of the rural workers are often neglected. Rather than looking out for the interests of its people, the Nicaraguan government focuses on building its relationship with the sugar barons.
People are dying. The country is profiting. Nothing is being done to fight CKD.
“In the first place, I figured someone would do something about (CKD),” Liberty University biomedical sciences student Dylan Holman said. “As I got older, I realized money gets to people’s heads quickly … (The government) is willing to sacrifice their people for money.”
Holman, now a sophomore at Liberty, first visited Chichigalpa in January of 2015 on a mission trip with his family.
In addition to working with children in the village, Holman volunteered to provide dental and pharmaceutical care to the locals. From his interaction with medical professionals on the trip, he gained an acute awareness of CKD. He noticed the absence of adult men in the village and spoke with widows of the men who died from the disease.
His awareness grew into a desire for understanding.
After joining the Liberty University Scientific Research Society (SRS) his sophomore year, Holman decided to pursue an understanding of CKD through academic research.
“This is something Liberty University can do to help people,” Holman said when discussing his research plans.
Holman gathered a team of Liberty students majoring in various disciplines: microbiology, forensics and public health. Together, they hope to find the cause of CKDu (the strand indigenous to Chichigalpa), present their findings to Ingenio San Antonio and continue their research to find some preventative measures and, eventually, a cure.
“The first step is figuring out why and where it came from … The next step is figuring out how to get rid of it,” Holman said. “Maybe there’s not an instant cure … but maybe there’s a way to prevent it. Figuring out how to prevent it rather than finding a straight up cure is sometimes the best route to take.”
Holman explained CKD affects its victims quickly. It takes about a month to progress from initial symptoms to death. Because finding a cure will likely take more time than finding ways to prevent CKD, Holman’s team is going to focus on finding preventative measures after identifying the cause of the disease.
“Where it started, that’s the big question, I think … Where did it come from?” Holman said. “Is it genetic? Did it originate in the water? Did it originate from the pesticide that they’re using?”
To answer some of these questions, Holman is planning to go to Nicaragua and collect samples of water, pesticide and DNA from family members of CKD victims. The research team will also consider sun exposure in their research.
Following his trip to Nicaragua July 31 to August 4, Holman says the team will begin research during the fall 2017 semester. Holman is currently looking for a professor to help the research team through the process, and he is confident they will have a faculty advisor by the time they start their research.
While in Chichigalpa, Holman plans to spend time visiting with widows and families affected by CKD in addition to gathering samples for research.
“It’s medical research, and it’s also a ministry to the people,” Holman said. “I’d like to designate at least one day of sitting with people who have it … I kind of want to be a witness to them … I just want to show them the love of God … People are going through this disease, but one day they (can) be with God … Sitting with them in their house and talking with them is enough for them to see (the love of God).”
Though Holman is not fluent in Spanish, he is friends with a translator in the village from his previous trip to Nicaragua, and he took a few Spanish classes in high school. Visiting with the people in the village is important to his research because he wants to personally know the people he is working to help.
“We’re just trying to help the people and learn as well,” Holman said. “This is terrible, and the fact that no one is doing anything about it makes it worse … (The government) is just watching these people in (Chichigalpa) waste away from (CKD), and no one knows anything about it.”
Though studies have been done in the past with the intent of finding the root of CKD, none have succeeded. Researchers know the kidney disease is correlated with the men’s work in the sugar cane fields, but they do not know the exact cause of the illness. According to NPR, the sugar cane workers blame the agricultural chemicals (i.e., pesticides and herbicides), but dehydration and sun exposure are also thought to be the culprit.
Despite the conflicting opinions, Holman hopes to find the true cause of CKD with his research team at Liberty University. Currently, he is attempting to raise money for travel expenses to Nicaragua and for research starting fall of 2017. To donate, visit Holman’s GoFundMe page.