On November 18 I had a meeting with President Lula of Brazil. I sought his renewed commitment to eliminating leprosy.
I know President Lula takes a deep interest in leprosy and people affected by the disease. Soon after assuming office, he visited one of the country's former leprosy hospital-colonies. He also signed legislation to compensate those who suffered under Brazil's past policy of isolating leprosy patients.
Therefore, it is hard to accept that Brazil, along with Nepal, is one of only two countries still to achieve the WHO's interim goal of eliminating leprosy as a public health problem. The way things are going, it will soon be the only country-a situation I made clear to the president while requesting that he take corrective action.
On hearing that Brazil was lagging behind in achieving the elimination goal, a goal agreed at the 44th World Health Assembly in May 1991, he promised to do something. Later that night, I understand that the president, the health minister and other officials got together and decided to ask heads of municipalities around the country to make leprosy a priority, along with dengue fever.
One can't hope for progress without the momentum generated by strong leadership. In many countries, actual responsibility for dealing with the issues devolves to the municipalities, so it is imperative that this momentum carries all the way from the top to the front-line health workers.
Elimination of leprosy as a public health problem is a milestone, a strategy on the way to the ultimate goal of eradicating the disease altogether. Countries that have already achieved elimination are committed to the current WHO strategy of further reducing the number of new cases by sustaining quality services.
Therefore, let's encourage Brazil to move past the elimination milestone. It must not be left behind.
QYohei Sasakawa, WHO Goodwill Ambassador