India health secretaries meeting seeks to put focus back on leprosy
|Addressing the health secretaries conference on August 4|
At the end of July, Goodwill Ambassador Yohei Sasakawa traveled to India for a series of meetings with government officials and parliamentarians as part of his efforts to foster ongoing commitment to leprosy control and to generate greater momentum for improving the social and economic status of people affected by the disease.
The main meeting of his visit took place on August 4, when state health secretaries or their representatives from 13 states gathered for a conference in Delhi. Hosted by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare and WHO India, the conference was called to discuss what needs to be done to further reduce the leprosy burden in India.
The disease remains a public health risk in three states, while 209 out of India's 640 districts have a disease prevalence that exceeds the WHO target of less than 10 cases per 100,000 population. Under 70% of districts are said to have a district leprosy officer.
Addressing participants, Union Health Secretary Dr. K. Chandramouli said the announcement that India had eliminated leprosy as a public health problem at the end of 2005 had led to a certain amount of complacency. "We have to renew the effort we made earlier," he said.
WHO country representative Dr. Nata Menabde highlighted the fact that 10% of leprosy cases in India are children, indicating that the transmission rate is very high. She called for an "innovative approach" to tackle the challenges that remain, noting that different policies were required for rural and urban areas.
|Paying a call on Sheila Dikshit, Delhi's chief minister|
The Goodwill Ambassador said that on his visits to India he had noticed a decrease in the number of experienced personnel stationed at state and district leprosy offices. "Further, I get the feeling that there is a general weakening in leprosy control measures," he said. "Now is the time for each of us to renew our resolve and for each state to make a strong commitment to fight leprosy once again."
This point was underlined by Dr. C.M. Agrawal, Deputy Director General (Leprosy), in a separate meeting. If the political will is there at state level, he told Sasakawa, then the leprosy program will receive more priority.
At a reception in Delhi for Indian parliamentarians with close ties to Japan, Sasakawa took the opportunity to talk about his role as Goodwill Ambassador and sought their support in realizing his dream of seeing an end to leprosy and the discrimination it causes. He talked about the work of the Sasakawa-India Leprosy Foundation and the role of the National Forum of people affected by leprosy, some of whose board members were present.
In a meeting with Minister for Social Justice & Empowerment Mukul Wasnik, Sasakawa, accompanied by representatives of the National Forum, raised the issue of pensions for elderly and disabled residents of India's 850-plus self-settled leprosy colonies. A parliamentary petition committee has recommended a nationwide pension of 2,000 rupees for colony residents.
The minister acknowledged that existing disability pensions were still insufficient, but said that compared to three years ago there had been a definite improvement. He also drew attention to a number of plans currently under consideration, including the Food Security Bill and the National Rural Health Mission initiative to guarantee basic health for all, that would benefit people affected by leprosy.
Among others, Sasakawa also met with the chairman of the National Human Rights Commission of India, K.G. Balakrishnan, the chairman of the Rajya Sabha Committee on Petitions, Bhagat Singh Koshiyari, and with Sheila Dikshit, the chief minister of Delhi, whom he thanked for raising the pension for people affected by leprosy to 1,800 rupees.