As a young woman, Alta Schutte closely observed how the excess cholesterol wreaked havoc with her father’s health, forcing him to later his lifestyle.
That painful experience led to a resolution by Schutte that she will do all she can to assist her father and do whatever she can to save others from the debilitating effects of familial hypercholesterolaemia.
She turned to the books and today Schutte is a renowned biomedical scientist and research professor at the North-West University. She is a recipient of numerous awards and recently bagged the prestigious African Union Kwame Nkrumah for Scientific Excellence (AUKNASE) programme’s regional award in recognition of her sterling work in scientific research towards the eradication of hypertension.
An initiative of the African Union, the AUKNASE programme’s objective is to recognise top African scientists and researchers for their scientific achievements and valuable discoveries and findings. It also focuses on supporting and developing science, technology and innovation in Africa.
Schutte explains that hypertension is a condition where the pressure in the arteries is too high which results in damage to the very small blood vessels that supply all our organs. When the pressure remains so high over long periods of time – day and night – it causes damage to vital organs, such as the brain, heart and kidneys, and it results in serious events such as stroke. And that is how many people die.
She contends that the challenge is that it is asymptomatic, thus individuals with the disease are mostly unaware that they have it.
“In Africa the proportion of the population with hypertension is higher than in countries with very good health systems where this can be detected more easily during routine visits to clinics. Also, black populations globally have an increased risk of raised blood pressure – potentially due to genetic reasons,” she says.
Schutte maintains that without government playing a leading role, the eradication of hypertension in Africa in general and South Africa in particular is not possible.
“The main drivers of hypertension in South Africa are abdominal obesity, alcohol and high salt intake,” says Schutte, adding that there is a need not only for awareness and behavioral change, but also for government intervention, especially to change the food industry through initiatives like tax on sugary drinks.
Schutte explains that receiving the AUKNASE award has strengthened her drive to create awareness of hypertension.
“Getting more people aware of the condition of hypertension is a major priority, whether these are men, women and children on the street, or presidents or ministers attending the African Union Awards ceremony or reading this or other related material.”
She adds that as the threat of HIV, malaria and TB are being overcome, non-communicable diseases such as hypertension and diabetes will be a threat that will result in many deaths in Africa.
“If health systems and prevention programmes are put in place now, there is still major opportunities to change this. But ministries of Health need to prioritise,” she explains.
Currently, Professor Schutte is the Director of the South African Medical Research Council Unit for Hypertension and Cardiovascular Disease, and the South African Research Chair (SARChI) in the Early Detection and Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease in Africa. She is also the President of the International Society of Hypertension. Formerly, she was President of the Southern African Hypertension Society.
Despite her demanding career, Schutte still manages to spend quality time with her family and credits them for supporting her work. She contends that no matter how busy one is, family should never be neglected and she gives both her work and family 100% when it’s their turn.