Timor-Leste officially declares leprosy eliminated as a public health problem.
A small country of about one million people, Timor-Leste achieved independence from Indonesia in 2002. Since then, it has had to grapple with political unrest, security concerns and geographical constraints, all of which have created serious barriers to the delivery of health services to its people.
|People affected by leprosy at the March 23 ceremony marking a public health milestone for Timor-Leste|
In spite of these challenges, the health ministry, working in close cooperation with the WHO and other key partners including The Leprosy Mission International, has had a leprosy elimination program in place since 2003. The national program has focused primarily on training health staff in the detection and treatment of leprosy, actively looking for cases, and ensuring all patients have uninterrupted access to multidrug therapy (MDT). Just one year ago, in fact, the ministry and its partners held a workshop on leprosy, underlining their commitment to see Timor-Leste make progress on this issue.
As a result of these efforts, the country saw the prevalence rate of leprosy fall from 5.18 per 10,000 people in 2004 to 0.73 by the end of December last year, when there were 73 cases under treatment. The WHO considers leprosy is no longer a public health problem when prevalence drops below one case per 10,000 people.
In his address, President Ramos-Horta told people affected by leprosy in the audience, "You have suffered for a long time. This government will do its utmost to see that people affected by leprosy, including family members and those who have been cured, can achieve normal lives."
Among those attending the ceremony were National Parliament President Fernando Rasama, Health Minister Dr. Nelson Martins and the Deputy Regional Director of the WHO's Southeast Asia Region Office, Dr. Poonam Khetrapal Singh.
Dr Singh stated, "This is an important milestone. With Timor-Leste achieving this goal, all countries in Asia have now eliminated leprosy as a public health problem." She added, "WHO is committed to continuing the program with the same intensity to further reduce the disease burden, especially in the three remaining endemic districts, i.e. Oecusse, Baucau and Viqueque."
One of the three, Oecusse, is cut off from the rest of Timor-Leste by the Savu Sea. It is thought to have served as a leprosy colony in times past, helping to explain why it contributes so many cases.
Because of his involvement in emergency relief aid work related to the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, Goodwill Ambassador Yohei Sasakawa was unable to attend. He was represented by The Nippon Foundation's Executive Director Tatsuya Tanami.
In remarks delivered on his behalf, the Goodwill Ambassador warned Timor-Leste against complacency. "I hope you will stay focused on leprosy, continue to look for new cases and help those who have recovered from the disease to help themselves."
But he also expressed his happiness at the outcome, saying, "Above all, I congratulate Timor-Leste on its achievement of elimination. And I thank you all for your dedication and hard work, which made this possible."