The seventh Global Appeal to End Stigma and Discrimination against People Affected by Leprosy, endorsed by the World Medical Association, was launched in Sao Paulo, Brazil, on January 30. Because I had been hospitalized in Lima, Peru, the previous day with a heart emergency, I was unable to attend. However, this is the gist of the message that was delivered on my behalf.
In the long history of leprosy, it has been customary to view the disease as dangerous and to fear those suffering from it. Regrettably, such attitudes persist, even today. They represent an invisible wall preventing people affected by leprosy and their families from participating in society. The wall becomes higher and thicker each time someone seeks to justify his or her discriminatory actions or prejudiced ideas.
We can't change the past, but we can shape the future. I believe that reaching as many people as possible through the Global Appeal and making them aware of their discriminatory behavior and sentiments is the first step to tearing down that wall.
To tear it down completely requires the efforts of the people on the other side as well - people affected by leprosy and their families. Long-existing prejudices and the discriminatory treatment they have received have given root to feelings of fear, resignation and surrender. Yet when they sense even a small sign of change within themselves, I hope they will find the courage to speak out and blast a hole through that wall. In Brazil, India and various other countries, advocacy organizations of people affected by leprosy are attempting to do just that. I am hoping more such groups will emerge and I assure them of my full support.
On the medical front, we are one step away from eliminating leprosy as a public health problem in every country, with Brazil affirming it will eliminate the disease in the next few years. But the road to resolving the social consequences of leprosy is a long one and we are only at the beginning. So let us strengthen our solidarity, close ranks and move ahead.
- Yohei Sasakawa, WHO Goodwill Ambassador