On a recent visit to Myanmar I had the opportunity to visit a health center about four hours' drive from Yangon and meet with healthcare workers and several people affected by leprosy. Over the years, I have visited many such facilities in different countries. The purpose of these visits is always the same: to see for myself the situation on the ground, to show my support and appreciation for the important work that frontline healthcare workers do, and to offer encouragement to people affected by leprosy and listen to their concerns.
With the integration of leprosy services into the general healthcare system, it is essential that health workers be familiar with the disease. However, as leprosy becomes less of an issue, they will encounter fewer cases, making it more difficult to recognize the signs. But it is a challenge that must be met, because early diagnosis and prompt treatment with multidrug therapy are the bedrock of leprosy control.
The onus is not just on health workers. There also needs to be greater community involvement in efforts to control and eradicate the disease. This requires effective information, education and communication strategies reaching down to the grassroots level. This is particularly important in areas where there is still a high degree of stigma attached to leprosy, resulting in the disease being concealed rather than cured. Cases that go untreated perpetuate stigma and are a burden on families and communities.
Governments have made enormous strides in controlling leprosy, working closely with the WHO and with local and international partners. This cooperation will continue to be essential. But more must be done to involve people affected by leprosy as key partners in the process. Having experienced the disease themselves, they are the real experts and have an important role to play in promoting community awareness, breaking down stigma and ensuring that people affected by leprosy receive the treatment and understanding they need.
- Yohei Sasakawa, WHO Goodwill Ambassador