Recent visit spent in the company of reporters promotes coverage of leprosy.
|With Raj Kumar Shah (2nd from left) and Dr. Thakur (2nd from right) at the READ-Nepal workshop|
MARCH (APRIL 24-27)
In my role as Goodwill Ambassador, I believe that reaching out to the media is especially important. Drawing the attention of the press to the issues surrounding leprosy and having leprosy covered in an appropriate way leads to the public being better informed. This gives people the knowledge and encouragement to seek treatment and serves to debunk myths about the disease.
Thus I was delighted that my latest visit to Nepal was spent in the company of five local print, radio and television journalists, who would be reporting on my activities during my four-day stay. In addition, I took part in two well-attended interactions with journalists, one in the capital Kathmandu, and the other in Janakpur, Dhanusha district. These were designed to brief media about the disease and to enlist their greater involvement in Nepal's bid to eliminate leprosy as a public health program.
Nepal's health authorities believe that they will be able to reach the elimination milestone of less than one case per 10,000 population by the end of this year. As of mid-March, 3,165 patients were registered for treatment and the prevalence rate stood at 1.16. The burden of the disease is mostly in the Terai belt and some hilly districts in Nepal's Mid-Western and Far- Western regions.
On arrival in Kathmandu, I paid a courtesy call on Minister of Health and Population Girimajrani Pokharel, apologizing for visiting him on a holiday. "This is not a holiday for me," he replied. "We don't take holidays in the midst of this important work."
In the afternoon I attended a workshop at READ-Nepal. Under the leadership of Raj Kumar Shah, this local NGO's mission is to improve the socio-economic status of people affected by leprosy and other persons with disabilities. It is now working to ensure that their voices are reflected in the new constitution of Nepal that is being written.
READ-Nepal recently completed an eightbed ward for ulcer care and I was asked to perform a ribbon-cutting ceremony to formally open it. Later I addressed the 50 or so attending the workshop . Among those joining me on the dais were Dr. Garib Das Thakur, director of the health ministry's Leprosy Control Division.
|Dhamendra Jha, president of the Federation of Nepali Journalists, speaking in Kathmandu|
"As journalists, we must discharge our social responsibilities," Mr. Jha said.
The tireless Dr. Thakur was one of the main speakers that evening at the first interaction with journalists at a Kathmandu hotel, briefing them on the progress Nepal is making tackling leprosy, and stressing that the leprosy elimination program is a government priority. He also accompanied my party to Danusha and Mahottari districts in the Terai the following day, where a second get-together with local journalists had been arranged in Janakpur.
"This is a poor, impoverished area," Dr. Thakur said to the assembled media. "But with your help we can achieve the elimination goal. Tell people that leprosy is not a curse. Let them know that treatment is free."
Both the Kathmandu and Janakpur events were arranged in cooperation with the president of the Federation of Nepali Journalists, Dharmendra Jha. Addressing his colleagues in Janakpur, he said that the goodwill ambassador had come all the way from Japan to fight leprosy, and it would not do for the media to remain silent on such an important issue. "As journalists, we have to discharge our social responsibility," Mr. Jha said.
|Devpura subhealth post near Janakpur, Danusha district|
Danusha and Mahottari are among two of four districts served by Lalgadh Leprosy Services Center, the NGO run by Nepal Leprosy Trust. LLSC serves a key role as a leprosy treatment and referral center in support of the government's leprosy control program. Beyond that it performs many other important functions, including capacity building of health workers, building community awareness of leprosy via educational dramas, and organizing community-based empowerment and rehabilitation activities.*
I was able to see for myself an excellent example of the good work done by LLSC when I was taken to visit Loharpatti Primary Health Center in Mahottari district. The journey took about one hour by car from Janakpur along a dusty, unpaved road busy with carts, bicycles, pedestrians and the occasional bus. Here I met with a self-help group of some 30 persons affected by leprosy that gets together once a week.
This is one of 10 groups started between 2002 and 2004 by LLSC, which gave them training in how to prevent disability and encouraged them to conduct self-care camps for others. From these beginnings, the group has reached out to other disabled and marginalized people. It has embarked on income-generation projects working with loans provided by LLSC, and it has used some of these loans to support a women's development group.
In this way, the group members have served as agents of change within their community, and now work along side village committees tackling issues such as hygiene and sanitation.
One of the results has been a reduction in stigma through interaction with other members of the community, who have responded positively to what they are doing. "By helping the village, we are contributing to society," says Muslim Momen, the head of the group. I learned later that when LLSC first approached Mr. Momen to serve as leader, he denied that he had been a leprosy patient. Such was the stigma attached to the disease that it took several attempts before he could be persuaded to get involved.
Shortly after I left Nepal, the prime minister resigned, plunging the country into political chaos. A new cabinet was being selected as this newsletter went to press. Assisted by the WHO and other partners, the health authorities have been taking leprosy very seriously. The strategies and activities of the leprosy elimination program have been strengthened and upgraded. I hope that the work of the leprosy control division will continue unchanged under the new government. In the meantime, I would like to thank the journalists who accompanied me for their coverage of my visit and I hope they will keep leprosy in their sights.
* Sasakawa Memorial Health Foundation has been supporting Nepal Leprosy Trust activities, especially educational street dramas, since 1999.