The tremendous achievements in leprosy should not lead to complacency.
|Tireless advocacy: Yohei Sasakawa meets with people affected by leprosy on a visit to Brazil in 2006.|
Today, leprosy has been virtually eliminated in all but a few stubborn pockets, thanks to generous long-standing donations of multidrug therapy (MDT) from The Nippon Foundation and subsequently from the pharmaceutical industry. The worldwide number of new cases continues its dramatic decline, from 515,000 in 2003 to 245,000 at the end of 2009, representing a 52% reduction. We have reached the point where we can envisage a world without leprosy.
Of all the diseases that continue to plague humanity, leprosy has the most notorious history as a cause of deformity, disability, discrimination and fear. From ancient times until the recent past, the disease was considered both highly contagious and impossible to cure. Victims were universally shunned, their physical suffering compounded by the misery of being treated as social outcasts. Because it was thought that leprosy could not be cured, the sole option for control was the isolation of patients in colonies or leprosaria.
Nowadays, treatment which used to take decades takes a matter of months with drugs that are so safe they can be taken by pregnant women. Patients under treatment quickly lose the ability to infect others. Disabilities can be prevented by early detection and complete cure is a reality. The face of a long loathed and feared disease has changed: hard to catch and easy to cure.
However, these tremendous achievements should not lead to complacency. Leprosy continues to affect difficult-to-reach populations with limited access to information and health services. Improving access to early diagnosis and treatment in order to prevent disabilities remain major challenges.
Mr. Yohei Sasakawa, WHO Goodwill Ambassador for leprosy elimination, dedicates his time, work and passion to advocate for a world without leprosy. He tirelessly visits countries, meets with decision-makers and opinion leaders, shares his views with health workers and listens to people affected by leprosy and their families.
He is also using his energies to ensure that discrimination and human rights violations related to this disease will be brought to an end in every part of the world. I am certain that millions of people around the world, fully cured and living normal lives, will join me in expressing our appreciation.
Dr. Chan is Director-General of the World Health Organization