I spend about one third of the year traveling abroad on leprosy work, spreading the three simple messages that you see in the masthead above. On the ground, my strategy is threefold: to meet with heads of state, to motivate health authorities, and to solicit media coverage.
When visiting a developing country, it is especially important to speak with the head of state and gain his or her commitment to keeping leprosy on the list of health priorities. Doing this helps to make the job of the leprosy program manager easier since so many more people are suffering from HIV/AIDS, malaria and TB.
Tanzania's president once told me that he had read up on leprosy for the first time because of my visit, learning there were many cases in his country. Another president told me flatly, "We don't have leprosy here," and said that as a child he'd heard that everyone with the disease had been sent to an island in the middle of a lake. In fact, unbeknownst to him, there was a major leprosy sanatorium about 40 minutes' drive from his residence.
When I visited Zambia at the end of June, President Banda said with impressive candor that he had always been rather afraid of leprosy. After hearing what I had to say, he said he now knew better, and pledged to redouble Zambia's efforts to eradicate the disease.
When calling on a head of state, I am usually accompanied by the health minister or vice minister. So when a leader pledges his support for leprosy control, his words energize the activities of health authorities.
As we reduce stigma, the role of the media is vital. Wherever possible, therefore, I bring the local media with me when I meet people affected by leprosy. As well as offering each individual my personal encouragement, I want the media to publicly record our handshakes and interaction, as I believe these images help change public attitudes toward the disease.
On visits that I am able to carry out all three parts of my strategy, I feel that my work has been truly meaningful.
- Yohei Sasakawa, WHO Goodwill Ambassador