For years now a “mysterious” kidney disease has swept through poor, disadvantaged areas across the globe, but a new study suggests this epidemic is not as random as we may think. According to the research, the rising global temperatures caused by climate change line up with rising rates of mysterious kidney failure. Fortunately, like all consequences of climate change, the spread of this epidemic could be slowed down. But first we need to actually care.

In some agricultural communities, waves of inexplicable kidney failure known as "chronic kidney disease of unknown origin," or CKDu can wipe out entire families, Science Magazine reported. The disease is most common among agriculture workers, particularly men responsible for the hardest manual labor. Its symptoms come on swiftly and suddenly, without many of the traditional precursors of kidney disease such as diabetes and obesity. Although the condition was originally seen in only sporadic clusters, scientists soon began to connect the dots among these smaller outbreaks, and far larger international epidemics began to take shape. For a study, now published in the Clinical Journal of the American Society of Nephrology, Richard Johnson, M.D. and Jay Lemery, M.D. from the University of Colorado School of Medicine, and Jason Glaser, founder of the La Isla Foundation, specifically investigated the disease's prevalence in three different regions of the globe: Mesoamerica, Sri Lanka, and India.

“You see these huge populations and the disease is going ignored or unrecognized for decades,” Glaser told Medical Daily. “ It’s becoming a leading killer of men, especially in our at- risk already vulnerable populations.”

According to the study, the epidemic is a trickle-down effect of climate change.

Higher temperatures raise the risk for heat waves and decrease rainfall. The extreme heat and dehydration puts extreme stress on the kidneys and those in the most disadvantaged groups — farmers and miners,feel the brunt of this effect.

“The disease is primarily affecting subjects who are working manually outside in very hot conditions,” study author Dr. Richard Johnson told Medical Daily. “Many of these are workers in industries such as sugar cane fields, where there is not much shade. It is very easy to become dehydrated in these conditions.”

Of course, not all the pieces to the mystery have been put together. It’s still unclear whether toxins in the environment or drinking water play a role in the epidemic, and if so which ones in particular are to blame. The problem is also exacerbated by the extreme labor, with Glaser explaining that relaxing in a hot destination for a few years will likely not lead to kidney problems. Still, it's clear that as global warming continues to rage unabated, the epidemic will likely creep closer to home than many people may be comfortable with.

“I think we’re going to find that this is probably occurring right here in the States either with immigrants coming in or with people developing it,” said Glaser.

Johnson added that, if it is recurrent heat stress that is leading to these kidney problems, as the study suggests, “then it may be relevant to other populations in which recurrent dehydration may occur, such as in the athlete, or in subjects working in mines where it can be hot.”

The problem is big and addressing it may seem overwhelming at first, but according to Glaser, the first step to solving the problem is understanding just how big it is. By accurately surveillancing CKDu and figuring out where it is and who it affects, we can begin to get the money together to actually make a difference.

“We are probably dealing with a global crisis,” said Glaser. “We need to address it as such.”

Source: Glaser J, Lemery J, Johnson R, et al. Climate Change and the Emergent Epidemic of CKD from Heat Stress in Rural Communities: The Case for Heat Stress Nephropathy. Clinical Journal of the American Society of NEPHROLOGY. 2016