Kidney Disease victims deserve better

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We have often been told that our health sector is the envy of South Asia. This is no exaggeration. Sri Lanka has a free countrywide healthcare system that reaches even the remotest areas. The country’s infant and maternal mortality rates are among the lowest in the region, thanks to the efficiency of the service and the dedication of the health professionals. However, this is not to say everything is running as it should be, as the public and even medical professionals would testify.

The Kidney Disease or Chronic Kidney Disease of Uncertain Aetiology (CKDu) ravaging the country’s North Central Province and neighboring regions, is one of the sternest tests for the island’s health sector. The disease continues to claim victims by dozens every month, and no one cause has yet been found (hence the term ‘of uncertain aetiology’) despite exhaustive field research. Estimates of those stricken by the disease range from 70,000 to 400,000, though no one is truly sure whether the numbers might be even higher. While the new government has pledged fighting the disease a priority, there is much to be done on the ground. For example, less than 200 kidney dialysis machines exist nationwide; not nearly enough to treat the thousands of patients stricken by the CKDu. With no proper kidney donor program in place, patients are forced to wait and see if someone would step forward to donate a kidney and save their lives. All too often, there is no one, and they suffer a slow and painful death.

The health sector though, can’t win this fight by itself. There are other issues that need to be addressed if we are to prevent more people from becoming victims of this deadly disease. For example, researchers have continually raised the hypothesis that excessive use of agrochemicals, particularly glyphosate was at least partly contributing to the disease. The former government finally banned the use of glyphosate and several other agrochemicals in December, last year. However, the decision, taken just days before the presidential election, was widely seen as a political gimmick. In fact, it has also come to light that the decision was never properly enforced. Now that a new government is in office, the official stance on the ‘ban’ continues to be murky while lack of a proper awareness campaign means not even the traders, let alone farmers, are aware of such a ban being imposed.   

There has been a suggestion that a ‘National Policy’ on kidney disease should be formulated in order to meet the enormous challenge. While it is yet to be seen whether authorities would in fact move towards this path, current upheavals within the health sector are sure to impede efforts. 

At the time of writing, the Government Medical Officers’ Association (GMOA) and the Government Nursing Officers’ Association (GNOA) are engaged in a bitter salary dispute. Both sides have made it clear that chances of a compromise are slim at best. There is the persistent threat of both sides launching trade union action if they feel authorities are more inclined towards meeting the other side’s demands. Meanwhile, rampant corruption within the health sector means valuable funds that could be utilized for the benefit of thousands suffering from the CKDu are ending up in the pockets of crooked officials.

The situation as it is now is not helping to prevent the CKDu from spreading and claiming even more victims. It is still not too late to stem the tide, but time is fast running out. The victims deserve better.

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