Congratulations to Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, 2020 Fries Prize for Improving Health Recipient

The Flint, MI, water crisis is arguably one of the most detrimental environmental public health crises to date of the 21st century. Mona Hanna-Attisha, MD, MPH, FAAP, who exposed the crisis, is being honored today with the Fries Prize for Improving Health in a virtual ceremony at the American Public Health Association’s annual conference.

The water crisis began in 2014, when the city of Flint switched its water supply from Detroit’s water system to the Flint River. The water was not initially treated to prevent lead from leaking from the pipes into the water. As a result, lead from these pipes leaked into the Flint water supply, leading to high levels of the neurotoxin and exposing thousands of residents to dangerous levels of lead in their drinking water.

Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha

When Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha learned of complaints from local citizens about their water supply, she requested the state share its data on blood levels in children. When the state did not share their information, Dr. Hanna-Attisha began to collect medical records. Through her research, she found the percentage of children with elevated blood lead levels increased after the water supply switch. With this information, she informed Flint residents of the danger. Initially the state dismissed her claims, but through more research officials admitted her findings were correct.

Her research led to action among local, state and national governments. A state of emergency was eventually declared. Federal involvement followed with emergency responses from the Environmental Protection Agency and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Importantly, her efforts led to the first major update to the Lead and Copper Rule, which sets testing requirements for lead in drinking water, in 30 years. This update improved protocols for identifying lead, expanding sampling and strengthening treatment requirements.

In addition to exposing the Flint water crisis, Dr. Hanna-Attisha received the Fries Prize for Improving for motivating national changes in community water management and reducing racial and ethnic disparities in child health. The CDC Foundation is honored to partner with the James F. and Sarah T. Fries Foundation to present the Fries Prize for Improving Health, annually each fall.

Dr. Hanna-Attisha joins a long and distinguished list of Fries Prize recipients, including Harvey Alter, MD, MACP, who received this year’s Nobel Prize in Medicine for his work in discovering the hepatitis C virus.

If you would like to hear more about Dr. Hanna-Attisha’s work in the water crisis and the community-centered work that is creating a better future for families and children in Flint, tune into the CDC Foundation’s Contagious Conversations podcast for her 2019 interview on this topic.


Diana Robelotto Scalera is the director of alumni affairs for the CDC Foundation.