Global & Disaster Medicine

Chronic Mountain Sickness in Peru

Science

“…La Rinconada….the world’s highest human settlement, a gold-mining boomtown at 5100 meters in southeastern Peru. An estimated 50,000 to 70,000 people live here, trying to make it—and, many hope, strike it rich—under brutal conditions. La Rinconada has no running water, no sewage system, and no garbage removal. It is heavily contaminated with mercury, which is used to extract the gold. Work in the unregulated mines is back-breaking and dangerous. Alcohol abuse, prostitution, and violence are common. Freezing temperatures and intense ultraviolet radiation add to the hardships.

La Rinconada’s most defining feature, however, the one that lured the scientists, is its thin air. Every breath you take here contains half as much oxygen as at sea level. The constant oxygen deprivation can cause a syndrome called chronic mountain sickness (CMS), whose hallmark is an excessive proliferation of red blood cells. Symptoms include dizziness, headaches, ringing ears, sleep problems, breathlessness, palpitations, fatigue, and cyanosis, which turns lips, gums, and hands purplish blue. In the long run, CMS can lead to heart failure and death. The condition has no cure except resettling at a lower altitude—although some of the damage may be permanent…….”


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