When explaining the issue of leprosy and human rights to UN bodies and human rights organizations, there is always likely to be a problem of interpretation. People unfamiliar with the realities of the disease tend to construe this as a "right-to-health" issue.
However, given that leprosy services are being integrated into the general health-care system and treatment is available free of charge, it is necessary to study the bigger picture. We must look beyond the issue of access to health care, and the fundamental right to health that underpins this, and focus specifically on the scourge of discrimination.
Even after people with leprosy have been treated and cured, the stigma of the disease can undermine their basic human rights, in particular, the right to work, to marry and to receive an education. This discrimination is most apparent among those in a vulnerable position . women, children, persons with disabilities and the elderly.
Since the introduction of multidrug therapy in the 1980s, some 15 million people around the world have been cured of leprosy. However, they are not the only potential targets of discrimination. Tens of millions of their family members and relatives also face social ostracization. This is all the more reason why any consideration of leprosy and human rights must go beyond a right-to-health definition.
When the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) classifies the problem of discrimination, it divides it into different categories, including discrimination against women, children, the disabled and the poor. Leprosy-based discrimination comes under all these headings. It is social discrimination writ large, and universal in nature.
I should therefore like to propose to the newly constituted UNHRC that it take up the human rights aspect of leprosy as an issue of discrimination, and examine this deep-rooted problem from every angle.
This is a subject about which I feel strongly, and I hope that we can move toward together to rid the world of leprosy-based discrimination forever.
-Yohei Sasakawa, WHO Goodwill Ambassador