Forty years have passed since the death of the revolutionary, Che Guevara. As a young medical student, he set off on a motorcycle journey across South America together with a friend who was a biochemist. Passing through Peru, they spent time at a leprosy colony, where they volunteered their services as doctors.
Many people became familiar with this story after it was made into a popular film, The Motorcycle Diaries. Doubtless quite a few movie-goers were seeing leprosy depicted for the first time.
As some of you may know, I use the example of a motorcycle when I describe progress in the fight against leprosy. In my analogy, the medical aspect of the disease is represented by the front wheel and the social aspect by the rear wheel. To ensure a smooth journey, both wheels must rotate at the same rate and be the same size. Balance is important.
Concerning the medical aspect, the front wheel has been gathering speed in recent years. Leprosy has been all but eliminated as a public health problem in countries around the world. In 1985, the disease was endemic in 122 nations; today this remains the case in only four.
However, those of us involved in this work have neglected the back wheel. People affected by leprosy still face serious issues with regard to stigma and discrimination. For my own part, it was only a few years ago that I fully came to appreciate the scale of the problem, and began to focus more attention on it.
In other words, though the front wheel has been spinning in the right direction, the back wheel has been holding up progress. The motorcycle needs some fine-tuning.
I am now doing my best to see that initiatives to tackle the social consequences of the disease are brought up to speed with the medical efforts, because they are equally important components of a complete cure. Not until we have adjusted the back wheel will the motorcycle accelerate past the point where everyone is truly free of the disease.
-Yohei Sasakawa, WHO Goodwill Ambassador