A Brazilian doctor whose work helped save the lives of tens of thousands of children through a Church-run network that provides basic health care and support to infants was among those killed in the Haiti earthquake.
Zilda Arns was in Haiti to support the local volunteers of the Pastoral da Criança (Children’s Pastoral), a group she founded in southern Brazil in 1983.
The group teaches uneducated mothers the importance of healthcare issues such as breast feeding, vaccinations and proper hydration, and then instructs them how to pass on that knowledge to friends and neighbors in Brazil’s most impoverished communities.Today, the Pastoral is one of Brazil’s most respected organisations and Arns was one of the nation’s best-known faces.
The group is present in 42,000 Brazilian communities, with 260,000 trained volunteers attending to 1.8 million children under the age of 6. In those communities, the infant mortality rate is 11 per 1,000 births; in Brazil overall it is 22.5.
“There is absolutely no doubt that the Children¹s Pastoral program revolutionized public health here, which was then based solely on government health services,” said Cesar Victora, a epidemiologist who worked with Arns for more than two decades.
When UNICEF looked to set up a new children’s health program in Brazil, her brother, then a bishop, asked the 75-year-old paediatrician Arns to come
up with a proposal and she used the parable of the loaves and fishes as inspiration.
“God told people to organise and they were fed,” she said in an interview last year. “We organised the communities, we identified the leaders in those impoverished areas, and we told the ones that wanted to work as volunteers in multiplying knowledge and solidarity that we would teach them how to do that. I knew if we did it right we could save millions of lives.”
Arns’ decision to rely heavily on the Church was vital because Brazilians, especially poor Brazilians, trust men of faith more than they trust the government. That means the Pastoral’s volunteers get access that state health workers might not.
Arns herself was extremely devout and alongside the diplomas and awards that cover the wood-panelled walls of her office are religious icons and photographs of churchmen, including one of her with Pope John Paul II.
Her faith helped her through her own tragedies. Her first born child died just three days old and her husband drowned while rescuing a girl from rough seas in 1978. One of her five other children died in a car accident in 2003.
Arns was too fragile to run the Pastoral on a daily basis but she continued to visit communities across Brazil as well as many of the 20 countries where it has operations.
“When I go to communities where the Pastoral da Criança is present women hug me as if I was an old friend,” she said. “They tell me their lives have been changed by it. They tell me they feel like real doctors. And it makes me happy to know that I have made people happy.”