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Mystery illness sweeping Pacific coast of Central America

Esteban Felix / AP

Segundo Zapata Palacios' daughter hugs his body as his children mourn for him inside their home in Chichigalpa, Nicaragua, Jan. 26. Zapata, who worked as a sugar cane cutter for 20 years at the San Antonio sugar plantation, died of chronic kidney disease on Jan. 26 at age 49. From left to right are his children Laura Maria, Ababell Paola, and Hector Danilo. A mysterious epidemic is devastating the Pacific coast of Central America, killing more than 24,000 people in El Salvador and Nicaragua since 2000 and striking thousands of others with chronic kidney disease at rates unseen virtually anywhere else. Many of the victims were manual laborers or worked in the sugarcane fields that cover much of the coastal lowlands.

Estbean Felix / AP

Emma Vanegas, wife of Segundo Zapata Palacios, shows photographs of banana trees in their garden which they claim show damage from agricultural chemicals sprayed over the San Antonio sugar mill, located next to their home, in Chichigalpa, Nicaragua, on Jan. 20.

 

Jesus Ignacio Flores started working when he was 16, laboring long hours on construction sites and in the fields of his country's biggest sugar plantation.

Three years ago his kidneys started to fail and flooded his body with toxins. He became too weak to work, wracked by cramps, headaches and vomiting.

On Jan. 19 he died on the porch of his house. He was 51. His withered body was dressed by his weeping wife, embraced a final time, then carried in the bed of a pickup truck to a grave on the edge of Chichigalpa, a town in Nicaragua's sugar-growing heartland, where studies have found more than one in four men showing symptoms of chronic kidney disease.

-- Reported by the Associated Press

Estbean Felix / AP

Left: A sugar cane cutter smokes a cigarrette as he rests from cutting cane in the fields, Jan. 20. Center: Sugar cane cutters work as smoke from burning cane rises behind them in the fields of the San Antonio sugar plantation in Chichigalpa, Nicaragua, Jan. 27. Right: A sugar cane cutter drinks an electrolyte solution supplied by his employer at the San Antonio sugar mill in Chichigalpa, Nicaragua, Jan. 20.

Estbean Felix / AP

In this Thursday, Jan. 19, 2012 photo, former sugar cane cutters Juan Cruz, 50, right, and his brother Hilario Perez Cruz, 30, pose for a portrait in their home in Trohilo, Leon, Nicaragua. Both Juan and Hilario suffer chronic kidney disease and can no longer get hired by the sugar mill due to their illness.

Estbean Felix / AP

Ernestina Aleman, right, watches over her son Jesus Ignasio Flores, who suffers chronic kidney disease, as he rests in his bed in Chichigalpa, Nicaragua, Jan. 4. Flores, 51, who died of chronic kidney disease on Jan. 19, worked as an irrigator and construction worker for 23 years at the San Antonio sugar plantation and mill.

Estbean Felix / AP

Emma Vanegas bathes her husband Segundo Zapata Palacios, who suffers chronic kidney disease, inside their home in Chichigalpa, Nicaragua, Jan. 18.

Estbean Felix / AP

Segundo Zapata Palacios rests in a hospital as his wife Emma Vanegas sits at his bedside in Chinandega, Nicaragua, Jan. 24. Zapata, who worked as a sugar cane cutter for 20 years at the San Antonio sugar plantation, died two days later of chronic kidney disease.

Esteban Felix / AP

The body of Segundo Zapata Palacios is driven to the cemetery during his funeral procession past the sugar cane fields where he worded in Chichigalpa, Nicaragua, Jan. 27.

Esteban Felix / AP

In this Friday, Jan. 27, 2012 photo, Wilson de Jesus Zapata is embraced by his wife at the tomb of his father Segundo Zapata Palacios after his burial at the cemetery in Chichigalpa, Nicaragua.