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WHO Goodwill Ambassador's Newsletter For The Elimination Of Leprosy

FROM THE EDITORS: TWO DISEASES, A COMMON ENEMY

It was 30 years ago this June that the first cases of a baffling new disease were reported in the United States. What the world came to know as HIV/AIDS has gone on to kill some 25 million people worldwide and left 33 million living with HIV.

In the beginning, the disease was associated with homosexuals. As it spread to other socially marginalized groups such as drug-users and sex workers, it reinforced the stigmatization they already faced. Because of its devastating impact on human health, the fear of contagion, and the discrimination suffered by those it affected, HIV/AIDS has sometimes been called "the modern-day leprosy."

In just 30 years, huge strides have been made in HIV/AIDS research and treatment. Fears and misconceptions remain, however. The stigma attached to the disease still prevents people from coming forward for testing, or causes them to conceal their condition for fear of rejection. These are issues familiar to leprosy.

In the long history of leprosy, it took centuries before the first real cure for the disease emerged in the 1940s. And it was not until the early 1980s - just as HIV/AIDS was emerging - that a truly effective cure became available in the form of multidrug therapy.

Today, leprosy is far down the list of priorities of most governments; AIDS, by contrast, is a pandemic.But political commitment remains as important to tackling leprosy as it does to HIV/AIDS. Similarly, the role of media is vital in shaping perceptions of both diseases and those who suffer from them. Leprosy can learn from global efforts to tackle AIDS-related stigma; in return, it can offer an insight confirmed down countless centuries of suffering: stigma lies not within those affected by a disease, but in the society that discriminates against them.