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WHO Goodwill Ambassador's Newsletter For The Elimination Of Leprosy

AMBASSADOR’S JOURNAL: Looking In on Myanmar

Leprosy is well under control, but stigma and discrimination remain.

People affected by leprosy hesitate to visit
the pagoda for fear of discrimination.

At the end of May I visited Myanmar in connection with a project supported by The Nippon Foundation to build and renovate schools in Shan State. But I also took the opportunity to bring myself up to date on the leprosy situation.

In 1988, Myanmarfs leprosy prevalence rate was 39.9 per 10,000 persons at the national level. Thanks to the efforts of all concerned, the prevalence rate dropped dramatically in the years following, and in January 2003 Myanmar announced that it has achieved the WHO target of eliminating leprosy as a public health problem. The achievement has been sustained under the leadership of Health Minister Dr. Kyaw Myint.

There are about 350,000 people in Myanmar today who have been cured of leprosy. Of these, between 2,500 and 3,000 live in some 50 colonies around the country. As is found elsewhere, discrimination against people affected by leprosy exists, and there are many cases of persons unable to marry or attend school because someone in their family has been affected by the disease.

To address such issues, an organization for people affected by leprosy called Myitta Arr Marn (gStrength of Well Wishesh) was founded two years ago. It aims to promote dignity and respect for those affected by the disease, provide them with a common platform to voice their concerns, and promote their social and economic rehabilitation. Currently run by professionals, the plan is to turn over control of the organization to people affected by leprosy in due course. Last year MAM held its first empowerment workshop and there are plans to set up a number of local branches in leprosy-endemic areas.

Meeting with colony residents
on May 20 in Yangon

In the former capital, Yangon, there is a breathtaking Buddhist structure called the Shwedagon Pagoda. For the 90 percent of Myanmarfs population who are Buddhists, this is the most important symbol of their religion in the country, and paying homage there is a blissful experience. But people affected by leprosy hesitate to go to the pagoda because of the stigma and discrimination they face.

During my stay, I met with nine people affected by leprosy who live in a colony in the suburbs of Yangon. Not one had visited the pagoda, despite its proximity. Creating a society in which people affected by leprosy can go to Shwedagon without fear of discrimination is a big challenge, and I would like to do what I can to help.