Good Work: A Woman Who Saved Millions of Lives

Among the dead in the devastating Haiti earthquake was a Brazilian pediatrician who since 1983 has saved millions of lives through a program she established to reduce infant mortality. Dr. Zilda Arns died on January 12, 2010 in Haiti while working to build her child healthcare program in that impoverished country. Most people outside Brazil don't know about this woman. In my opinion, she deserves a Nobel Prize.

A devout catholic, Dr. Arns decided that it was wrong to sit around and depend only on the government. She believed that a community effort could be very effective.

Her older brother, who was at the time the archbishop of São Paulo, had encouraged her to start a program to reduce infant mortality and had promised church support. With a small budget, and working out of her own home, she set off to the small town of Florestópolis in the northern part of Paraná state. At the time, Florestópolis had a very high rate of infant mortality and poverty. There she rounded up 76 volunteers, most of them public school teachers, and taught them the basics of infant nutrition and infant care.

Dr. Arns knew that most infant deaths could be avoided if mothers could learn simple infant nutrition, sanitation and health methods. The vast majority of children died because of dehydration from diarrhea. So she taught them how to make an inexpensive solution made with salt and sugar that replaced a sick child’s essential minerals and electrolytes. She also saw that mothers were putting their children to sleep facedown, which often led to asphyxiation, so she taught them to put the kids on their backs. She invented a simple scale that could be used to weigh the babies at home, and taught poor mothers how to buy and prepare the most nutritional foods with their limited incomes. She and the volunteers also helped pregnant women take care of themselves during the gestation period, thus increasing the health of babies at birth.

The program, which is now called Pastoral da Criança, was so successful in Florestópolis that it started spreading to other towns all over Brazil. The key to the program’s success was in Dr. Arns’ ability to multiply and train volunteers. Most of her work spread through Catholic community networks. The techniques were so simple and cheap, yet so effective, that Dr. Arns’ volunteers could not only teach the mothers (house to house) but also train more volunteers to do more of the same. There are now more than 262,000 volunteers who oversee the health of 1.9 million children and pregnant women in almost 4,100 Brazilian cities.

Without a doubt, Dr. Arns radically transformed many incorrect notions of infant nutrition and healthcare in the nation. The result: The infant mortality rate in these towns has dropped from 127 to 11 deaths per 1000 live births, a decrease of 91 percent. These results are so positive that over the years the Brazilian federal government has made the program part and parcel of its overall health programs.

Pastoral da Criança is now operating in 17 nations. In 2004, Dr. Arns also established the Pastoral do Idoso, a program designed to care for the elderly poor using the same volunteer and community networking principals as her program for children.

The entrepreneurial vision of Zilda Arns is a great inspiration and model for everyone in the workplace. We might not be called to slow infant mortality among the poor, but if we can bring this kind of passion, love and willingness to serve to our workplace and communities, we could make a great difference.