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WHO Goodwill Ambassador's Newsletter For The Elimination Of Leprosy

AMBASSADOR’S JOURNAL: Travels to Vietnam, Switzerland

The goodwill ambassador visits a leprosy treatment center near Hanoi and leads a mission to Geneva to attend the Sixth Session of the Human Rights Council.

Former WHO Director General Halfdan Mahler (third from left) and High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour (fourth from left) seen with Yohei Sasakawa (second from right) and panelists from a human rights workshop on leprosy, following a Japanese government reception hosted by Ambassador Ichiro Fujisaki (far right).


In September I made a brief visit to Vietnam, which achieved the WHO's goal of eliminating leprosy as a public health problem in 1995. At the end of 2006, Vietnam had 572 registered cases of leprosy, making for a prevalence rate of 0.1 per 10,000 population. During 2006, 666 new cases of leprosy were recorded. Of these, 5.56% were children, and 17.27% involved Grade II disability.
I understand that one reason for the high incidence of Grade II disability among new cases is the fact that information about leprosy isn't reaching Vietnam's 54 ethnic minorities. Part of the problem is related to language. Clearly it will be necessary to come up with some innovative interventions to reach these populations.
From Hanoi, I traveled to the Quoc Qai Leprosy Treatment Center in Ha Tay Province. There are a total of 20 such treatment centers in Vietnam. For the most part, they serve as residential homes for older affected persons suffering from disabilities.
Currently, Quoc Qai has 125 residents. They are looked after by a staff of three doctors, 12 nurses and various other helpers. In Ha Tay Province as a whole, there are said to be around 500 people affected by leprosy.
Residents of leprosy treatment centers get all medical care free of charge. They are also entitled to a monthly allowance of US$12.
Quoc Qai currently receives support from Netherlands Leprosy Relief (NLR), which provides eye-care treatment and supplies artificial limbs. NLR is also planning to begin a scholarship program for children of people affected by leprosy living nearby.
I have been to many leprosy facilities on my travels, and I was very impressed with Quoc Qai, which I found to be clean and well run.


I first approached the United Nations about leprosy in 2003, calling on the Office of the UN Human Rights High Commissioner to raise the issue of discrimination against people affected by leprosy and explore ways to assist in their social rehabilitation. Since then, I have participated in meetings of the UN Commission on Human Rights as well as the UN Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights.
This September, I made my first appearance at the newly-constituted UN Human Rights Council. My hope is to see the council take up leprosy as an issue of discrimination and issue a binding resolution to end discrimination against persons affected by leprosy and their families, and to establish guidelines for national governments and others to follow. I believe such a resolution will be a vital component in the effort to guarantee the human rights of people affected by the disease.
What was significant about this meeting was that the Japanese government raised the issue of leprosy with the Human Rights Council. It has also started talking with other members of the council, aiming to propose a joint resolution. Having official government backing is highly significant, and I am delighted and encouraged by this move.
On a personal note, I was recently appointed Japan's goodwill ambassador for the human rights of people affected by leprosy. In that capacity, I am grateful to Japan's Permanent Mission to Geneva for hosting a reception attended by ambassadors from many countries, including those on the council, and by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour and former WHO Director General Dr. Halfdan Mahler.
The occasion was an important one for emphasizing the human rights dimension of leprosy, and I know all those close to the issue felt the evening was a great success.