Zilda Arns: the brazilian woman who changed children’s lives

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article was exclusively written for The European Sting by Ms. Luísa Eugênio Farias, a second-year medical student at UNICESUMAR, in Maringá, Brazil and Ms. Esther Serman Castro e Silva, a third-year medical student at UFF (Universidade Federal Fluminense), in Niterói, Brazil. They are affiliated with the International Federation of Medical Students Associations (IFMSA), cordial partner of The Sting. The opinions expressed in this piece belong strictly to the writer and do not necessarily reflect IFMSA’s view on the topic, nor The European Sting’s one.

Zilda Arns Neumann was a Brazilian pediatrician and sanitary doctor. She was born on August 25, 1934, in Forquilha, Santa Catarina. She was also founder and international coordinator of Pastoral da Criança and Pastoral da Pessoa Idosa, social action organizations of the National Conference of Bishops of Brazil. On January 12, 2010,  Zilda was on a humanitarian mission in Haiti when the country was hit by a violent earthquake and she became one of the fatal victims.

During her medical student period, Zilda worked at a philanthropic hospital in Brazil. After Zilda graduated as a medical doctor, she was appointed to attend children under 1 year old at the outpatient clinic of the Children’s Hospital César Pernetta. She preferred to work with children, especially those in vulnerable situations. She took over the management of the network of health posts, which expanded to 21 communities on the outskirts of Curitiba and was invited to head the Department of Maternal and Child Health of the State of Paraná.

At a meeting of the United Nations, the executive director of Unicef, convinced that the Church could help save the lives of thousands of children who died of dehydration. So, in 1983, the pediatrician started Pastoral da Criança (the largest movement to combat child mortality) in the state of Paraná, Brazil, in which there was a high infant mortality rate (127 children per thousand born). After a year of activities, infant mortality has been reduced to 28 children per thousand. This result was achieved with the prevention of diarrhea through the guidance of basic hygiene care and preparation of oral rehydration solution (ORS).

Dehydration can lead to death due to loss of water and minerals. When properly cared for, most children with diarrhea evolve without dehydration and, among those who dehydrate 95% can be rehydrated orally. Oral rehydration solution was considered the greatest advance in medicine in the last century due to the simplicity of its formula, with low cost and the number of lives saved: 1 liter of clean water, 3.5g of salt, and 40g of sugar.

In conclusion, Zilda Arns was a leading woman who saved the lives of thousands of children in Brazil and undeveloped countries. Her work is recognized worldwide and she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006 proving that women are capable of great deeds and closing gender gaps in medicine. She is an inspiration for all women, especially future doctors.


Neumann ZA. A experiência de fazer acontecer a saúde entre os excluídos da sociedade. Revista Panamericana de Salud Pública. 2002; 12(3): 153–56. Available in https://pesquisa.bvsalud.org/portal/resource/pt/lil-327409

About the author

Luísa Eugênio Farias, 22 years old, is a second-year medical student at UNICESUMAR, in Maringá, Brazil. She is a member of the Academic League of Family and Community Medicine and of the Maringaense Academic League of Pneumology and Thoracic Surgery. Luísa is affiliated and LEO-D (Local Exchange Officer) to the International Federation of Medical Students Associations (IFMSA).

Esther Serman Castro e Silva, 22 years old, is a third-year medical student at UFF (Universidade Federal Fluminense), in Niterói, Brazil. She is a director of The Telemedicine and Innovation League and a member of Academic Radiology League.

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