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My travels to India left me truly inspired and optimistic about the future.

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Exemplary

Lessons in lifesaving from Brazil

What the biggest country in South America can teach the world about healthcare.

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I’ve been a big fan of Brazil for a while. I first visited back in 1995 when Microsoft was building out our operations there, including working with one of the national banks to launch home banking. And some of my favorite family trips have been to the Amazon, whose river, basin, and rainforest come up often during conversations on climate change. But it wasn’t until I began working in public health that I started appreciating just how impressive the country’s track record in this area is—and how much the rest of the world could learn from it.

In roughly three decades, Brazil has cut maternal mortality by nearly 60 percent, slashed under-five child mortality by 75 percent—far outpacing global trends—and increased life expectancy by almost a decade. None of these achievements was accidental. Instead, they’re the result of long-term, laser-focused investments Brazil has made in its primary healthcare system that other countries can learn from and emulate.

The story starts in the late 1980s. Two decades under military dictatorship had turned Brazil into one of the least equitable countries in the world. In 1985, the country became a democracy; a few years later, it created a universal health system.

In the decade that followed, deaths from non-communicable diseases and maternal, neonatal, and nutritional causes all started to decline, and life expectancy rose. With an increase in primary healthcare services, even hospitalizations dropped.

But it’s one thing to guarantee healthcare. It’s another thing to fund it—and another thing entirely to make sure it reaches the people who need it most. While Brazil had been making progress, there was much more to do. So at the turn of the century, the government accelerated its efforts and took steps to close the gaps in its healthcare system, including a dramatic increase in healthcare spending. One of the most important steps was massively expanding the size and scope of its community health worker (CHW) program.

Community health workers are trained public health professionals who work within communities, especially in remote or underserved areas. While their roles vary around the world based on local needs, they generally include things like disease tracking, vaccine drives, and basic health screenings.

In Brazil, CHWs had already shown they could improve public health access and outcomes during a pilot program in the Ceara state. As federal funding for primary healthcare increased, almost fivefold in fifteen years, the ratio of CHWs tripled.

Today, Brazil has over 286,000 CHWs who serve almost two thirds of the population—almost 160 million people.  Each one visits about 100-150 households a month, offering guidance on health and hygiene, advocating for preventive care, following up after medical appointments, collecting socioeconomic data, and helping people navigate other government services.

In Brazil, CHWs act as the front door to the world’s largest universal free public healthcare system, and their impact has been transformative. They’re credited with further cutting child mortality and pushing immunization coverage to near-universal levels. (Unfortunately, the pandemic impacted vaccination rates, but there are efforts underway to bring them back up.)

The country’s Bolsa Familia program—which provides cash transfers to poor families if they meet certain conditions, including vaccination for children and prenatal care—deserves credit too. Expanded in tandem with primary healthcare, Bolsa Familia is just one of the many social programs Brazil has built out over the past few decades that have helped lift almost a fifth of the country’s population out of poverty. But it’s also helped broaden healthcare access and usage by giving people an incentive to enter the healthcare system—which is how Bolsa Familia has contributed to reductions in child mortality as well.

I’ve been able to learn about these initiatives through the Gates Foundation's partnership with Brazil's Ministry of Health—which has focused on combatting malaria, improving vaccine production, leveraging local brainpower to address global health issues, and documenting the impact of social and health programs through data sciences. And I’ve been really impressed.

Of course, despite all the progress that’s been made in recent decades, Brazil still faces challenges. Financial crises and austerity budgets have led to cuts in healthcare spending, for example, and there are still districts where poorer residents have no access to CHWs.

But Brazil’s healthcare system doesn’t have to be perfect to serve as proof of what happens when a country invests strategically in care for its most vulnerable: The returns are often far-reaching and life-changing. 

That is why Brazil is highlighted by the Exemplars in Global Health program, which I helped launch in 2020. The program's mission is to identify countries that have made remarkable progress on health problems, understand the keys to their success, and share those insights globally so others can make similar progress. By that standard, Brazil has a lot to teach.

That’s not to say any country can or should replicate Brazil’s approach exactly, since no two countries are alike. But with the right mix of investment and innovation, Brazil has made great strides in becoming a healthier place for its people. If the country continues on that path and keeps doing what it’s done well already, and if other countries follow—or simply forge their own paths with Brazil in mind—we’ll have a healthier world, too.