The goodwill ambassador's travels take him to India, Madagascar and Mozambique.
Visiting Sanjay Nagar leprosy colony
north of Mumbai
INDIA (APRIL 11-15)
In April, I made my second visit of the year to India, traveling to Wardha in Maharashtra State. This holds a special place in the hearts of Indians. About eight kilometers from the center of the town is the Sevagram Ashram, where Mahatma Gandhi lived from 1936 to 1948, the year of his assassination. Here he meditated, cared for persons affected by leprosy, and oversaw India's independence movement.
The reason for my journey was to accept the 2006 International Gandhi Award from the Gandhi Memorial Leprosy Foundation at a ceremony held on April 12. After receiving this great honor from India's vice president, I called at the ashram, now a place of historic interest. I spent a few moments in the shade of a tree, reflecting on all that has been achieved since Gandhi's day, but also on how pervasive stigma and discrimination remain.
On April 13, I traveled to Warora. This is the home of one of India's most celebrated social activists, Baba Amte. In 1949, he established a community for people affected by leprosy that he called Anandwan, or Garden of Joy.
At work in Anandwan
After a memorable meeting with Baba Amte, who is now confined to bed, his son, Dr. Vikas Amte, took me on a tour. The land covers some 450 acres and is home to some 5,000 people affected by leprosy and persons with disabilities from all over India. They don't receive handouts but are employed in a variety of occupations . including agriculture, sewing, printing, carpetmaking, and brick-making . to enable them to become self-sufficient. There is a bank, post office, shops, hospital and university and a famous band. It's just like a small town.
According to Vikas, "our mission is to close down Anandwan" . to change society so that places like Anandwan are no longer needed. Truly impressed by what I saw, I feel Anandwan has much to teach.
On April 14, I flew to Mumbai, where I visited the Sanjay Nagar leprosy colony in Borivali, north of the city. This colony is led by Mr. Bhimrao Madhale, who is also the leader of Maharashtra's 37 self-settled colonies. It is located alongside a creek and is home to 5,000 persons affected by leprosy and their family members. In 2005, 30 homes were destroyed by flooding and hundreds more were damaged. But in a demonstration of unity and mutual assistance involving neighboring communities, area residents have done a wonderful job of rebuilding.
Next I visited the Acworth Leprosy Hospital. Founded in 1890, the hospital two years ago established a small museum in what used to be Ward No. 1. The museum recently copied all the historical documents related to leprosy for the past 100 years in the Maharashtra state archives. This will benefit students and researchers and the museum has already started to collaborate with the University of Mumbai's history department.
With Madagascar President Marc Ravalomanana
Addressing Madagascar's parliament
MADGASCAR (MAY 2-4)
On my last visit to Madagascar in 2005, I promised that I would return to congratulate the country when it eliminated leprosy as a public health problem. It was thus with great pleasure that I flew to Madagascar in May. Although only a short visit, it was very productive. I met with the president, health minister, foreign minister and the speaker of the Senate, and also had the honor of addressing the chamber.
In my address, I asked parliamentarians to publicize my three messages: leprosy is curable; treatment is free; discrimination has no place. My words met with a good response, and promises from them to spread the word in their electoral districts.
For Madagascar to have passed the elimination milestone required enormous effort, hard work, and resources. But to sustain the achievement is going to require more of the same. In addition, there is much still to be done to address leprosy's social aspect . the stigma and discrimination associated with the disease. Even as I congratulated Madagascar's leaders, I urged them to redouble their efforts to maintain progress.
During my stay, I traveled to a hospital in Moramanga, a town 120 kilometers southeast of the capital Antananarivo. In the ward I toured, 26 of the occupants were people affected by leprosy. Most had been hospitalized at the first signs of the disease and included a woman who had since given birth and was living there with her husband and child. Some said that they were unable to go home despite being cured, while others had never received a visit from their families in more than 25 years. I later met with a representative of the country's human rights commission to enlist his support in tackling leprosy-related discrimination.
I also participated in a partners' meeting involving officials from the health ministry, WHO and the Association Francaise Raoul Follereau (AFRF). The meeting outlined a three-year program to achieve elimination at state level, to improve access to health care, to promote social reintegration and to provide care for persons with disabilities. To facilitate these activities, the Sasakawa Memorial Health Foundation and AFRF each presented the government with 10 motorcycles.
MOZAMBIQUE (MAY 5-8)
Mozambique is one of three African countries yet to achieve the WHO elimination target. On my last visit in August 2006, I discovered that because of problems of budget allocation, drug insecurity and shortage of trained personnel in rural areas, elimination activities were not proceeding as hoped. I was greatly encouraged to learn that these problems have largely been addressed. Without doubt, this turnaround is due to the commitment of President Armando Guebuza.
Lately, the president has been getting the health minister to brief the entire Cabinet about leprosy activities, and has put the government's support behind elimination. Passing this milestone is now a national policy for the year 2007 to 2008.
When I met with Prime Minister Luisa Dias Diogo, she told me that Mozambique would continue to work in partnership with the WHO for elimination. She also promised that she would tell the national assembly to spread my three messages throughout the northern part of the country, where leprosy is more of a problem.
Looking at the progress that has been made in the past year, I would say that Mozambique has every chance of achieving the elimination goal by the end of 2008. Health Minister Paulo Ivo Garrido said every province now has personal computers, making it possible to manage medical data. Further, a leprosy database has been set up in Cabo Delgado province and is being made available to other provinces.
The ministry and WHO are placing volunteer staff at the town and village level. Further, with the permission of the government, the WHO has decided to install a leprosy officer in the north of the country. Minister Garrido also said he plans to ask experts to evaluate the country's elimination activities and analyze its statistics. This suggests to me that Mozambique is confident that it is moving in the right direction, and I shall follow its progress with interest.