//World Leprosy Day: Ending The Stigma Of Leprosy

World Leprosy Day: Ending The Stigma Of Leprosy

On Monday January 29, in conjunction with World Leprosy Day (January 28), Global Appeal 2007 will be launched "to end stigma and discrimination against people affected by leprosy".

* Leprosy is among the world's oldest diseases. If left untreated, it can result in severe deformity. Only in the 1980s did an effective cure become available – multidrug therapy, MDT – and more than 15 million people were subsequently cured of the disease. Since 1995, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has supplied MDT free to all identified leprosy patients, initially with funding from The Nippon Foundation and, subsequently, through MDT donated by Novartis and the Novartis Foundation for Sustainable Development.

* Cases of leprosy are still found in many countries, though currently less then 300,000 people develop leprosy each year. India, which accounts for 70 percent of the world's leprosy cases, has achieved WHO's target in eliminating leprosy as a public health problem (less than one person in 10,000) – as have most countries in the world. The main countries now reporting endemic cases of leprosy are Brazil, Nepal, Mozambique, Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Leprosy, however has reappeared in Sudan among refugees fleeing from the conflict in Darfur.

The Philippines, which is hosting the Global Appeal 2007, reported 3,130 new cases in 2005. Culion Island, The Philippines, once an isolation facility for those with the disease, has been home to more people affected by leprosy than any other facility in the world.

* Despite the fact that leprosy is easily curable, and that huge gains have been made in the fight to eliminate it, stigma and discrimination continue to be a serious problem. The disease and its treatment have become modern, but social attitudes remain backward. According to Yohei Sasakawa, Chairman of The Nippon Foundation and WHO's Goodwill Ambassador for Leprosy Elimination, "leprosy and the mystery surrounding its transmission have always given rise to fear, and fear has generated discrimination – not just towards those with the disease, but their families as well".

Even today, people who have contracted leprosy must often spend their lives completely isolated from society, although they may have been cured. They, and members of their families, sometimes find it impossible to marry, receive education or find work. An estimated 100 million people are victims of this discrimination. In India there are over 700 "leprosy colonies" where the stigma of leprosy is inevitably perpetuated.

* On World Leprosy Day 2006, Yohei Sasakawa, as WHO Goodwill Ambassador for Leprosy Elimination, led eleven world leaders in issuing the first Global Appeal, in New Delhi, India. Co-signers included former US President Jimmy Carter, The Dalai Lama, President Lula Da Silva of Brazil, President Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Oscar Arias, former President of Costa Rica, and former President R Venkataraman of India. This called on "people all over the world to change their perception and foster an environment in which leprosy patients, cured persons and their families can lead normal lives free from stigma and discrimination".

* Mr Sasakawa approached the UN Commission on Human Rights in 2003 in order to place the issue of leprosy and human rights on the UN agenda. In August 2005 and August 2006, the UN Sub-Commission on the Protection and Promotion of Human Rights unanimously adopted resolutions requesting all governments to take action to redress the situation. A special rapporteur is currently investigating the state of leprosy-related discrimination around the world. Meanwhile the social circumstances of people affected by leprosy remain little changed.

* This year, in Manila, the appeal will be made by leaders of people affected by leprosy, standing side by side with Mr. Sasakawa.They state that "denying the inherent human rights of anyone on the basis of disease is indefensible. Discrimination can never be justified". The appeal is organized by Ateneo de Manila University, the Department of Health of the Philippines, WHO, The Nippon Foundation and Sasakawa Memorial Health Foundation.