Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Brazil health chief takes on bishops, beer drinkers

Brazil's new health minister has upset people from bishops to beer-drinkers in his few months in the job.

But Jose Gomes Temporao has also won fans among social activists, pro-abortion groups and Brazil's poor.

The outspoken Temporao has emerged as the most contentious member of President Luiz Inacio Lula's government since he took office in March -- even taking on Pope Benedict.

"Health has become the right of every citizen and the duty of the state," he said when he was sworn in.

Since then, he has cut prices on birth control pills and advised men to get vasectomies. He has also outraged Roman Catholic leaders by supporting abortion and calling for a referendum on whether it should be legalized in Brazil.

His blunt style is reaching beyond national borders as he tries to spread Brazil's experience in the fight against AIDS.

Temporao learned politics as part of a socialist health reform movement that grew up in opposition to Brazil's 1964-85 military dictatorship.

At 55, he has a mop of black hair and the stride of a younger man. He has stayed faithful to his political roots.

Weeks before a visit by Pope Benedict to the world's largest Catholic nation, Temporao criticized the national bishops' council for its opposition to abortion.

"That's far from what Jesus taught us," he said, calling the issue a matter of safety for women.

The council head, Archbishop Geraldo Majella, in turn accused the government of promoting immorality.

Pope Benedict only fueled the debate during the May visit, in which he stressed the church's rejection of abortion and other forms of contraception.

DRINK AND DRUGS

Now Temporao is taking on Brazil's beer industry and global pharmaceutical companies.

As part of a crackdown on heavy drinking he proposed new limits on beer sales and advertising.

But a public spat erupted when he criticized popular samba singer Zeca Pagodinho's frequent appearances in ads for Brahma beer.

"He has got to stop doing those ads. It's pathetic," Temporao told a Senate commission.

Pagodinho shot back: "The government has other things to worry about. They can't blame beer. What kind of nonsense is that?"

Temporao also crossed global drugmaker Merck. Under a widely praised AIDS prevention program, Brazil gives out free drugs and condoms.

Merck offered to cut the price of its AIDS drug Efavirenz to about $1 per pill but Temporao decided to break Merck's patent and buy a cheaper substitute from India.

"We consider the proposal insufficient and we told the manufacturer that," he said.

Temporao is now pushing forward with plans to help African nations build plants to make cheaper drugs on their own.

Putting Brazil's own state-funded national health system in order is also a priority.

The network of clinics offers free treatments including vaccinations, but with nearly a quarter of Brazil's 185 million people living in poverty, it is underfunded and overburdened.

Dora Kramer, a prominent columnist for the conservative Estado de S.Paulo, newspaper gave Temporao her seal of approval and called him an asset to the Lula government.

"It's a relief to see and hear the new health minister," she wrote.

"He speaks about what concerns him, has a stand on controversial issues, and he doesn't curry favour."

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