Brazilian wins the Canada Gairdner Award


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“The 2017 Award highlighted the Brazilian scientific research about breastfeeding”.

By César Soares

The very first renowned Canada Gairdner Awards took place in 1959. Fifty-eight years later, for the first time, a Brazilian was a recipient of the award. On the 28th of March, the epidemiologist César Victora from Pelotas Federal University (UFPel) in Rio Grande do Sul, was announced the winner in the category of Global Health, receiving the John Dirks Canada Gairdner Global Health Award, by proving that breastfeeding exclusively for the first six months directly impacts maternal-infant health and adult development.

The research began in 1982 by Victora, who reviewed infant obituaries in the cities of Pelotas and Porto Alegre and started to document births in groups. These groups are still monitored today. These studies show that by exclusive breastfeeding in the first six months of life reduces, by 14 times, the risk of infant mortality by diarrhea and by 3.6 times the risk of death by respiratory infections. These discoveries provoked international changes in public policy as recommended by UNICEF and the World Health Organization (WHO).

With an intense travel schedule due to projects and research that he coordinates, the esteemed professor of UFPel, César Victora set aside some time to speak with the journalist from Brazilian Wave Magazine, César Soares.

Wave – What does winning this award, and as a first for Brazil, mean to you?
Victora It is the international recognition of research that has been done here at UFPel in the last 40 years. It was a gradual process where we had been gathering data and results from distinct research, mainly the study that we did in the 80’s.

Breast milk has substances that are essential to the formation of the brain.

Wave – How was the research developed?
Victora There were two research studies. In the first one, we compared to 2,000 children that had died in the first year of life compared to their neighbours that had not died. The main conclusion was that children who had received only breast milk up to six months of age had a lower mortality index than those that had received water, tea or juice. It was the first research in the world that proved the importance of breastfeeding exclusively. In the second research, we have followed until today, 35 years later, all those births in 1982.

Wave – These studies also showed evidence in relation to the length of breastfeeding and higher intelligence levels, schooling and even income up to 30 years of age. How does this happen?
Victora Breast milk has substances that are essential to the formation of the brain. There are molecules that aid in the cerebral architecture. A breastfed child develops his intelligence, has more synapses between the brain’s neurons, and by this effect, we were able to state that at 30 years of age, besides being more intelligent, these adults had more schooling and a higher wage in the workplace due to their productive and intellectual capacity.

Wave – In practice, what are the contributions that these scientific studies brought to society?
Victora The fact is that the results of our studies have been adopted by international organizations of the United Nations (Unicef/WHO) and recommended in all countries. That is when it was worth the research. It is not just an article in an academic publication that few people would read, but a public policy that has changed health practices all over the world.

the Gairdner Award is already a great achievement as it is one of the most prestigious awards in the world and I am very satisfied with that.

Wave – The Canada Gairdner Awards have existed for almost 60 years. Why do you think it took Brazil so long to be awarded one? In your opinion, is there a lack of scientific research in the country?
VictoraWe are facing the worst crisis in scientific research in the last few decades. Brazil has had great development in science and technology starting in the 90’s and 2000’s with a rise in doctorate courses, but now due to the measures of the new government with very serious restrictions to science, Brazilian scientists have found themselves ‘at war’. I am a member of the Brazilian Academy of Sciences and we have launched a weekly manifesto alerting the government that investment in science is an investment for the future.

Wave – At least 84 awardees of the Gairdner Award Have also received a Nobel in Health or Physiology. Do you see this as a possibility?
Victora My expectation is zero. Because in general, the Nobel goes to someone who has invented a medication, vaccine or discovered some mechanism of molecular biology. I do not think I have a chance as an epidemiologist because the Nobel prioritizes basic science. But the Gairdner Award is already a great achievement as it is one of the most prestigious awards in the world and I am very satisfied with that.

Wave – And what is your expectation regarding receiving the award in Canada?
Victora Very good. It will be on October 26th, my whole family and I will be there to celebrate.

* César Soares has a degree in Literature and is a journalist with experience in the main television stations affiliated with TV Globo, in the states of Bahia and Rio Grande do Sul. He is currently journalism coordinator for TV Câmara in the city of Pelotas, in the south of Brazil.