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WHO Goodwill Ambassador's Newsletter For The Elimination Of Leprosy

AMBASSADOR’S JOURNAL: Visits to India and Nepal

The Goodwill Ambassador congratulates Nepal on achieving elimination, attends a meeting of the National Forum in Chennai and launches Global Appeal 2010 in Mumbai.

Female community health volunteers in Kavre District, Nepal, in January.

NEPAL (January 18-21)

I have been a frequent visitor to Nepal over the years to support that country's efforts to combat leprosy, so it was with real pleasure that my January visit was to commemorate the fact it has eliminated leprosy as a public health problem. The government made an official announcement at a ceremony in Kathmandu on January 19, saying that the prevalence rate of the disease as of December 2009 is 0.89 per 10,000 inhabitants. Currently, 2,445 patients are undergoing treatment nationwide.

In separate meetings with Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal and Minister of Health and Population Uma Kant Chowdry earlier in the day, I congratulated them on this achievement and sought their ongoing commitment to further reducing the disease burden. Health Minister Chowdry acknowledged the work of staff in the field, and the contribution of local and international NGOs, and said it was important to sustain the momentum.

I should also like to acknowledge the role and leadership of the WHO country representative, Dr. Alex Andjaparidze and his team, and also the hard work and dedication of Dr. G. Thakur, the director of the health ministry's epidemiology & disease control division and leprosy control division, and all the staff who work under his direction.

The elimination ceremony was attended by over 100 people, including Mr. Dharmendra Jha, the president of the Federation of Nepali Journalists. Effective media coverage is an important part of leprosy elimination activities, and the federation has made a constructive contribution.

While most of my visit was confined to meetings in Kathmandu this time, I was able to make one field visit to Kavre District health office, accompanied by Dr. Thakur, who wanted to show me that efforts to inform the public about leprosy continue unabated. The visit coincided with a festival that takes place once every 12 years. I watched a dance performance, and was told that people affected by leprosy were among those participating. Female community volunteers also performed a song about leprosy that is used to raise awareness about the disease. One of the verses translates as, "If you suffer from leprosy, take drugs as prescribed. Do not think you have committed a sin."

Much work remains to be done in Nepal, but all involved are aware of the remaining challenges and know what they have to do.


Visiting a clinic in Hanuman Nagar colony (top); addressing residents of Mahatma Gandhi Kushtvasahat (above)

INDIA (January 22-26)

The idea for the National Forum, the increasingly influential network of people affected by leprosy, was first conceived five years ago in Chennai, during a discussion I had with IDEA India President Dr. P.K. Gopal, Dr. S.K. Noordeen, Dr. S.D. Gokhale and others. And it was to Chennai I returned in January for the forum's first ever southern regional conference on January 24 (see page 3). I was pleased to see such an excellent turnout for the conference, which was held in a 4-star hotel. As Dr. Noordeen, one of the speakers, commented, such a gathering would not have been possible at such a venue a few years ago. indicating the progress being made in breaking down social barriers.

In my remarks to delegates, I said that as individuals, or even individual colonies, their influence was limited, but as the National Forum it was possible to engage with the authorities from a position of strength. Under the umbrella of the National Forum you are united, I told them. "Keep this unity. It is your forum. Therefore it is your responsibility to ensure that it is a success."

While in Chennai, I attended a cultural event at which children of affected families in Tamil Nadu performed. Later that day, I was invited to the launch of Thorn, the English translation of a memoir by Muthu Meenal, a person affected by leprosy. The book was launched in the presence of actor Kamal Haasan, a fan of the book for its simplicity and honesty.

I also visited a couple of leprosy colonies, including Villivakkam, which is led by Mr. A. Prakasam, who is also a National Forum representative for the state of Tamil Nadu. Nineteen enterprises at the colony are being supported by microloans from the Sasakawa- India leprosy Foundation, including a toy shop in the colony itself and businesses selling shoes, saris, kitchenware and vegetables.

Moving to Mumbai for the launch of Global Appeal 2010 on January 25, my stay included meetings with National Forum representatives from Maharashtra state as well as visits to two colonies on the outskirts of the city. Among those addressing the National Forum gathering was Ram Naik, a former Cabinet minister who was among those who petitioned parliament in 2008 for the empowerment and rehabilitation of people affected by leprosy. Urging greater activism, he told the gathering, "You need a sword in one hand (to fight for your rights) and a pen in the other (to write applications)."

The first colony I visited was Hanuman Nagar in Kalyan, home to about 200 affected families. It recently started a dairy project with a SILF loan and is selling about 70 liters of milk daily to the local market. Like many colonies, it now finds the city encroaching. Next to it on what used to be open land where the boys of the colony once played cricket, two new apartment buildings are being completed. The colony includes a school where children are educated up to 4th standard. There is also a splendid Hindu temple. As there is no other temple nearby, I understand that people outside the colony come to worship there.

The second colony I visited was the Mahatma Gandhi Kushtvasahat in Thane. This too was once an isolated settlement, but it is now part of a larger community. The colony is home to about 185 affected families. I understand that some residents are now renting rooms to people outside the colony as a way of generating income. Certainly this can only help to spur greater social integration.

My main purpose in visiting Mumbai this time was for the launch of Global Appeal 2010. Now in its fifth year, the appeal was signed by representatives of the corporate sector. I am very grateful to two of the signatories, Mr. Keshub Mahindra and Mr. Kan Trakulhoon, for attending the launch ceremony in person. Moreover, I am deeply appreciative of all fifteen business leaders, who felt strongly enough about this issue to put their names to the appeal. I am very hopeful it will have a profound effect.