In recent months, a couple of newspaper articles were brought to my attention in which reporters used the word "leper." Both articles were about Sorok Island in South Korea, where a bridge has been built to link the island, once a leprosy colony, to the mainland. In these otherwise wellwritten accounts of the island's history, and of the expected impact of the new bridge on the lives of residents, it was disappointing to see the New York Times and Britain's Independent make use of this pejorative term.
I can't say this came as a surprise. The L-word has long been used by journalists and headline writers, and there are many other examples I could cite; after all, the term has been around since the Bible, and is part of the English language.
But "leper" is a loaded word. It carries all the unfortunate associations from the days when people with leprosy were routinely treated as social outcasts and declared unclean. Stigmatizing and discriminatory, it is hurtful and odious to anyone affected by the disease.
To define a person, let alone his or her entire existence, by leprosy is unacceptable. This is even more so today now that the disease, which is completely curable, is just a chapter in a person's life.
In some countries, including my own country Japan, even the word "leprosy" is considered stigmatizing. Nothing, however, compares with reducing a human being to the status of a "leper."
I take every opportunity to dissuade people from using the L-word, including writing letters to newspaper editors, but it is an uphill battle. I feel that responsible media organizations, with their enormous reach and influence, should show more sensitivity. Simply by avoiding the use of discriminatory terminology, they can play an important role in correcting distorted views of leprosy, and in lessening the stigmatization of those it affects. Once again, I urge everyone, please stop using the L-word.
-Yohei Sasakawa, WHO Goodwill Ambassador