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Science with side effects

Stella Hartinger-Peña’s work addresses pneumonia, diarrhoea and malnutrition in the Andes mountains of Peru. Her work has won her this year’s R. Geigy Award  –  CHF 20,000 courtesy of the R. Geigy Foundation.

Peru native Stella Hartinger-Peña has wanted to be a biologist for as long as she can remember. She has never once regretted her choice: neither in the lecture halls of the

Universidad Peruana Cayetano Heredia (UPCH) in Lima, where she discovered the mysteries of genetics, nor during her time in the Amazon region, which opened her eyes to ecological interrelations. After finishing her master’s degree in environmental science, she packed her bags and travelled across Peru, researching the impact of the country’s many mines on the health of nearby populations. The Andes region, so rich in silver, copper, and lead, had long been on the radar of international mining companies – with sometimes devastating effects on the health of the workers and people living there. Many rivers in the area are contaminated with lead; children and adults alike suffer from lead poisoning. “The fact that the government was aware of the situation but didn’t take any action, shocked me”, says Stella Hartinger-Peña. She was able to channel her anger into clear goals: using her background as a scientist to improve people’s health and provide consulting to companies on health issues.

Fighting diarrhoea with PET bottles

While Stella Hartinger-Peña was travelling through her home country, Daniel Mäusezahl was labouring under the blistering sun of Bolivia. He and his team from the Swiss Tropical and Public Health Institute (Swiss TPH) were testing a promising new method for making polluted water pot-able. They filled PET bottles with contaminated water and then let them sit in the sun for 12 hours, the idea being that UV rays would disinfect the water. The question that dogged the researchers: could this so-called solar disinfection (SODIS) method reduce the incidence of diarrhoea in the region where the study was conducted? “It soon became apparent to me that this kind of isolated research approach was not going to meet the needs of the people”, says Daniel Mäusezahl. People in the area needed help building houses and cultivating vegetable gardens. They needed new cookers and running water for preparing their daily meals. It was clear to Daniel Mäusezahl that a holistic approach was required. The three biggest threats to human health  –  diarrhoea, malnutrition and pneumonia  –  needed to be tackled simultaneously and prevention measures integrated into the national health care systems.

However, Bolivia was not the ideal place for this kind of undertaking. The election of the socialist president Evo Morales in 2005 had further destabilised the country, with demonstrations and unrest becoming increasingly common. While the bricks were flying in Bolivia, Daniel Mäusezahl was attending a conference in Beijing. He met with Claudio

Lanata, a renowned Peruvian doctor and noted nutrition expert working at the Instituto de Investigación Nutricional (Nutrition Research Institute) in Lima. Claudio Lanata was

well networked –  and enthusiastic about Daniel Mäusezahl’s idea.

The land of thorns

The first team member that Claudio Lanata recruited was Stella Hartinger-Peña. The young mother immediately strapped on her newborn daughter and headed towards Cajamarca, a part of the Peruvian Highlands on the border with Ecuador. Known as ‘cold country’ or ‘The land of thorns’ in the local language, it is one of the poorest regions of Peru. Here, at 2,600 metres above sea level, inhabitants spend their lives raising cattle or mining. Cooking is done indoors over an open fire, and running water is non-existent. In a project financed by the UBS Optimus Foundation, these indoor fire places were replaced with new, energy-efficient

cookers to reduce the number of particles in the household air. Running water, built-in sinks, and targeted hygiene education were aimed at to reduce the rampant rates of diarrhoea, particularly in children. While some of the households in the area benefited from this infrastructure overhaul, other households were part of a ‘control group’, in which emphasis was placed on promoting the cognitive and psychomotor development of infants. This was done in close cooperation with existing national development programmes.

Human needs and long-term solutions

Stella Hartinger-Peña experienced a rough landing of sorts when she arrived in Cajamarca. “It’s a male-dominated society, thus many team members had difficulty accepting me as their boss”, she recalls. However, her position as a mother dedicated to the well-being of other children and their mothers helped her being warmly received by the local population. For the first six months of her fieldwork, Stella Hartinger-Peña just listened to the voices of people and communities. “When public health projects are aimed at changing behaviour, it’s important to really understand the needs of the people”, she says. The stoves that the people of Cajamarca wanted had three burners with variable heat. They needed to be made locally for easy maintenance and repair, and significantly reduce the amount of smoke inhalation in the houses. And because they were energyefficient, mothers were able to gain more free time. Taken together, the interventions reduced the incidence of diarrhoea in infants by 30 %. “The biggest success of the project is surely the fact that even today, more than six years after the project ended, over 80 % of the people there are still using our cookers”, says Stella Hartinger-Peña. “Compared to the success rate of cookers distributed by other

organisations, this is remarkable.” But for Daniel Mäusezahl, it is not only the direct impact that is important. The unintended side effects of such development projects also

need to be taken into account. “When mothers tell you that they get more attention from their husbands and spend more time in the kitchen now that they no longer smell of smoke, when they say that their relationship with their children has improved through our infant development lessons, then we’ve achieved things that cannot be so easily measured”, says Daniel Mäusezahl.

Cooperation across institutions

It was not just the cookstoves that enjoyed great success in Peru – so did Stella Hartinger-Peña. After finishing her doctorate at Swiss TPH, she climbed the academic career ladder. Returning to Peru she won a competitive scholarship and was made assistant professor in 2015 at the UPCH in Lima, where she now teaches environmental health. For two weeks every year, she travels to Cajamarca with students from Swiss TPH and the UPCH to help them understand the problems of rural populations. The cooperation between the UPCH and Swiss TPH was formalised in 2013 with a memorandum of understanding. Receiving the R. Geigy Foundation Award is yet another highlight in Stella Hartinger-Peña’s still young career. “An amazing recognition of eventful years spent in the land of thorns”, she says, laughing.


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