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Signs of Life: Health

August 8th, 2009

Health1Poverty, malnutrition, disease and poor sanitation remain the main problems for Brazil’s health sector, while the lack of public finance seems ever-present. But the country’s Aids programme has won international praise

The Brazilian health sector struggles in the face of insufficient funding and the need to care for a population heading rapidly towards 200 million.

With millions forced to live in favela or shantytowns, the needs of the poor are particularly pressing. It is estimated that the US spends some nine times more per capita on health than Brazil, while in Europe the figure is up to six times more. Life expectancy in Brazil is 69 for men and 76 for women, according to World Health Organisation figures for 2006, compared with 76 and 81 respectively in the US.

Brazil’s Aids programme has, however, become a model for others. In 1996 it became the first developing country committed to providing free access to Aids drugs and has since succeeded in stabilising rates of infection.

Brazil created an international stir when it forced drug companies to reduce their prices by threatening to produce cheaper generic versions of their drugs.

“We were able to break the patent on drugs used to treat Aids, we were able to produce part of the drugs in our public health laboratories, and we were able to distribute these medicines to 170,000 Brazilians with Aids,” says Dr Gonzalo Vecina, director of philanthropy at São Paulo’s Hospital Sirio-Libanes.

But the government has failed to repeat this success in other areas of health.

This “model of efficiency” cannot be replicated in the area of hypertension, says Vecina, and it is the leading cause of mortality among the population, accounting for 25% of deaths. “We do a diagnosis, we tell the patient he has hypertension, but we cannot afford to pay for his treatment.”

As well as lack of finance, efficiency needs to be improved, he says. The average stay in public hospitals is seven or eight days compared with just four days in private hospitals.

As overseas money pours into the country, the health sector is also poised to reap the benefit of the growing foreign investment, according to Sergio Lopez Bento, who heads the Hospital Samaritano in Sao Paulo.

health2As a non-profit organisation, Samaritano cannot receive direct investments but it is attracting funds in other ways, such as “health tourism” and the hospital is now offering its services worldwide.

Brazil has already become known as a centre for cosmetic surgery, particularly among Americans, and offers procedures such as gluteoplasty – otherwise known as the “Brazilian butt lift.”

The concept of globalisation in health is different from other sectors, due to the specific demands of each regional market, says Bento. “But one thing is evident worldwide: there is not sufficient money to cover rising health costs.”

Written by Fiona Walsh

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