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Pasadena Woman Finds Cure for World Endemic Disease

Published on Thursday, December 12, 2013 | 11:38 am
Elizabeth Huttinger (L) with Jane Pauley (R), a long time supporter of and a member of the Purpose Prize Jury. Photo by

A Pasadena woman found a sustainable cure for one of the most devastating parasitic diseases in the world, second only to malaria, through an environmental restoration process.

Last Thursday, Purpose Prize recognized Elizabeth Huttinger, a 63-year-old Westridge School alumn, with a $25,000 prize for her international social relief efforts to eradicate schistosomiasis. Schisto, as the disease is commonly called, is a water-transmitted disease carried by snails currently infecting millions of the world’s poorest people.

“Elizabeth brings a really innovative approach to her work that we were excited to be able to highlight. Everyone who heard about Elizabeth’s idea was blown away. She is a remarkable person, a creative social advocate fully utilizing her past experiences – everything from her international development work to her experience as a mother – to help eradicate a global disease,” Eunice Lin Nichols, Director of the Purpose Prize said.

Purpose Prize, who recognized Huttinger as the only 2013 international prizewinner, is the nation’s only large-scale investment in people over 60 who are combining their passion and experience into “second acts” for the social good.

Impacting 240 million people in 76 countries per year, schisto’s symptoms include diarrhea, stunted child development, seizures, liver and bladder cancer, and at least 200,000 deaths each year. Mostly prevalent in West Africa, Schisto is contracted simply by coming into contact with infected water as the snail-carried infectant penetrates through skin.

In West Africa, life revolves around the river where bathing, laundering, and playtime takes place. Thus the entirely effective drug treatments can be futile, since most people are re-infected upon entering the water. Many donors and researchers seemed to have given up on finding a cure.

However, when Elizabeth Huttinger met evolutionary biologist Dr. Armand Kuris eleven years ago and heard his plan to eradicate the disease by reintroducing the native prawn that was the natural predator to the parasite-carrying snails, she jumped on the opportunity.

“It’s really hard to make a health program sustainable after the funding is gone. Ninety percent of them just stop. So when Armand was telling me about the prawn, I got very excited because prawns are high value fish products so people can fish them and sell them,” Huttinger said.

The problem all began in the 1980s when several dams were built throughout the Senegal River Basin for agriculture reasons. The dam stopped an important natural process. Although prawns live in freshwater, they reproduce in salt water. The prawns could not swim upstream to the salt water to reproduce so they became extinct.

With the snail’s only predator gone, the snail population and the urinary and liver infecting disease that the snail can carry exploded at the same time.

Dr. Kuris realized that by reintroducing the natural predator to the snail, the prawn could help balance the snail population and eventually eliminate all the disease carrying snails until areas become parasite free and schisto free.

With her background working with the UN Global Fund and USA ID after the Bosnian war, “Tizzie Oldknow” as her old classmates may remember Huttinger, realized the implications of what this professor said and knew she could be the bridge to the solution, that she could put the plan into action. The words all-important words—sustainability, microenterprise, community involvement, and empowerment—oozed from the idea.

“The health benefit will continue because the motivation is cash in your pocket. Motivation to keep the prawns alive in the river is the fact that it can become a fishery. To me that stood out right away as the best kind of sustainability,” Huttinger said.

She immediately got to work by heading to the Senegal River Basin, the worst hit location to restore the native prawn that had gone extinct in hopes she would have a profound and positive impact on schisto.

“The water is polluted with parasites over there. You can have a whole beautiful big river flowing with water and people can’t go in it and it’s boiling hot. That’s just sad. We’re turning that around,” Huttinger said.

Huttinger has already helped decrease infections of ‘snail fever’ by forty one percent in the trial areas. In just six months, Projet Crevette reversed an epidemic that had ravaged local communities for three decades.

“Our first site, we started 18 months ago, there are no more infected snails at all. There are snails and there are prawns, but there’s no more infected snails,” Huttinger said.

Today, Projet Crevette is a prawn-farming microenterprise, operated by locals at public watering holes. The project is sustainable, empowering the very people affected by the disease to essentially cure themselves and their children. It’s also socially innovative, creating microbusinesses and restoring the environment while improving health.

The next steps include stocking prawns throughout 106 miles of interconnected waterways over a 30-mile area in the Senegal River Basin. Projet Crevette also plans to release 20,000 fingerling prawns each month, and will construct fish ladders on dams to aid the prawns’ migration.

An entire ecosystem was disturbed and now will be restored with Huttinger’s work. If the eradication proves successful, she hopes to take the cure to all of West Africa.

“It’s really an environmental restoration, that’s solving the leading cause of global morbidity. More than 250 million people per year are sick,” Huttinger said. “I am learning there’s a reason for everything, there’s a reason why some societies are behind. There are wars, and that’s terrible, but when it’s a disease that’s tragic.”

Huttinger is hopeful that the economic state of Senegal can improve significantly with the 4 million prawns they will be putting into the rivers each year. If the people fish 20 percent of those prawns it could produce around $5 million into the local economy helping up to 10,000 people per year to come out of poverty.

“People are sick, It’s not that they don’t have motivation and they’re not bright enough, in the background they’re sick everyday. So fix that problem and things will be a whole lot better, the economy will get better,” Huttinger said.

Huttinger spends almost half of her time in Senegal, going four times a year for six weeks at a time. She said her situation is lonely sometimes since she is working in isolation and loses touch with her friends. Being a Purpose Prize winner encouraged her that she was not alone.

“It was amazing because all the other prizewinners had the same problem. When you get really committed and engaged in something that uses all of your mental resources, you love it and keep doing it and may be lonely, but knowing there are others doing the same thing, it’s very motivating to keep going,” Huttinger said.

However, she knows that she is pursing the right opportunity because the project is moving along at a steady pace.

“It is incredible and it keeps being incredible and I think that it is a project that really wanted to happen because opportunities come along and we just take advantage of them and it gets better and better,” Huttinger said.

“A lot of it just comes from being open to opportunity when it comes along. That is something true of all the Purpose Prize winners that something has come along that’s made us go hold on, I know I can do that and it’s a great thing to do and I want to. It’s a community of people who provide great resources to each other,” Huttinger said.

For those interested in Projet Crevette, check out the website at or visit Projet Crevette could use help in bookkeeping, public relations, and raising money for the fish ladder.

“Funding is hard to find because this is a health issue that were solving without getting involved with the human body. It’s not medical research, but it’s breakthrough stuff if it works,” Huttinger said.


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