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WHO Goodwill Ambassador's Newsletter For The Elimination Of Leprosy

AMBASSADOR’S JOURNAL: Geneva Days

The Goodwill Ambassador finds plenty to discuss on his recent visit to Switzerland.

SWITZERLAND (May 21-25)

In May I visited Geneva to attend the annual World Health Assembly. While there, I was asked by Dr. Margaret Chan, the WHO's director-general, to extend my term as Goodwill Ambassador by a further two years.

I have never accepted an honorary title in name only. Entrusted with the role of Goodwill Ambassador, therefore, I have always devoted myself wholeheartedly to this work. The motto I adhere to is "passion, perseverance and continuity."

Since I was first given a role as a leprosy elimination ambassador more than a decade ago, I have traveled abroad 179 times in that capacity and devoted 1,222 days to my duties. In that time I have met with some 160 presidents, prime ministers, health ministers and other present and former leaders. With the fresh impetus provided by my reappointment, I shall continue to fulfill my responsibilities to the best of my ability.

As Goodwill Ambassador, the motto I adhere to is "passion, perseverance and continuity."

During my stay in Geneva I took the opportunity to hold a number of meetings on the sidelines of the World Health Assembly to discuss leprosy and related issues. Accounts of some of these discussions follow.

It was a pleasure, as always, to meet with Dr. Jarbas Barbosa, Secretary of Health Surveillance at Brazil's Ministry of Health. Brazil is the one country that has yet to eliminate leprosy as a public health problem, but the federal government has made achieving this a high priority - not only at the national level but at the state level also.

Dr. Barbosa told me that Brazil will launch leprosy screening activities in September in 1,800 priority municipalities that have a higher burden of the disease. Up to 16 million schoolchildren will be screened, with confirmed cases leading to further screening of contacts. "I think we will see a lot of cases that are not now visible," he said, expressing Brazil's determination to make progress on this issue.

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Left to right: Dr. Jarbas Barbosa (Brazil), Dr. Enrique T. Ona (Philippines) and Dr. Nasr El-Sayed (Egypt)

Another acquaintance I was able to catch up with was Dr. Enrique T. Ona, Secretary of Health of the Philippines. Dr. Ona told me that his ministry is committed to ending the isolated existence of long-term inhabitants of the country's leprosaria. Integration is very important, he said, although it won't be easy. "We are looking for the active participation of the Department of Social Welfare and Development, especially on behalf of children," he said. The ministry is now collecting data on how many families can be assisted.

From India I met Mr. P.K. Pradhan, Secretary of the Ministry of Health & Family Welfare. Secretary Pradhan told me that although India had eliminated the disease at the national level, there were still many pockets of leprosy in the country and there was no room for complacency. "We are trying to sensitize front-line health workers. Early detection is very important," he said.

From Egypt, meanwhile, I spoke with Dr. Nasr El-Sayed, 1st Under Secretary for Preventive and Endemic Affairs at the Ministry of Health and Population. Egypt has an early detection program for leprosy and offers treatment and social support. "Sometimes the social support is even more important than the medicine," he told me.

I was interested to learn from him that a one-hour documentary about leprosy aired recently on Egyptian television. The program was made by one of the country's best-known journalists and was seen by millions. "We are pushing the media to break the silence on leprosy in Egypt," Dr. Nasr said.

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With Novartis CEO Joseph Jimenez

Ending the stigma and discrimination that people affected by leprosy face is an important concern of mine, and I had another reason for being in Geneva. I wanted to call on the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to discuss the ongoing symposia series on leprosy and human rights that The Nippon Foundation is organizing in five regions of the world. The first of these was held in Brazil in February and the second is slated for India in October.

The five symposia are designed to follow up on the December 2010 UN resolution on eliminating discrimination against people affected by leprosy and their family members. In particular, they seek to find a way to raise awareness of the resolution and implement the principles and guidelines on eliminating discrimination to which the resolution refers.

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With the Pacific Leprosy Foundation's Jill Tomlinson and Richard Gray.

Therefore, I welcomed the chance to talk with Ms. Marcia V.J. Kran, director of the UNHCHR's Research and Right to Development Division Office and her colleagues to hear their thoughts. Ms. Kran noted that while the principles and guidelines were not legally binding, they were nevertheless "quasi-legal - an agreement that the General Assembly has endorsed - so that they have great persuasive effect … In a sense, that's an achievement, but the real test is in the implementation."

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Novartis headquarters in Basel

Among the suggestions she and her team made was to make use of provisions in the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities - for example, measures on awareness-raising with regard to the media, so as to encourage all organs of the media to portray persons with disabilities in a positive way, in order to address issues of stigma and discrimination.

I had meetings with a number of WHO regional directors. One I had the pleasure of meeting for the first time was Ms. Zsuzsanna Jakab, the WHO Regional Director for Europe. I asked for her cooperation for the visit to Russia and the Ukraine that I am planning to make at the end of June.

During my stay in Switzerland I also traveled to Basel to pay a courtesy call on Novartis and the Novartis Foundation for Sustainable Development. Novartis manufacturers the drugs used in multidrug therapy (MDT) - the WHO-approved treatment for leprosy - and the Novartis Foundation has made MDT available free of charge to the WHO since 2056. The provision of this drug security is one of the keys behind the successful elimination of leprosy as a public health problem in virtually every country, and to the ongoing effort to further reduce the burden of the disease in the world.

In a meeting with Novartis CEO Joseph Jimenez and Novartis Foundation Chairman Professor Klaus Leisinger, I thanked them on behalf of people affected by leprosy for the contribution they are making.

Returning to Geneva, I gave a speech at the May 24 awards ceremony when the WHO honors initiatives in public health. One of these awards is the Sasakawa Health Prize, which this year went to Syamsi Dhuha Foundation, an Indonesian foundation that works to improve the quality of life of people living with lupus and poor vision.

At the same ceremony I also had the opportunity to meet Richard Gray, the chairman of the Pacific Leprosy Foundation (PLF) and his colleague Jill Tomlinson. They were collecting the 2012 Dr Lee Jong-wook Memorial Prize for Public Health for PLF's work to eliminate leprosy from the Pacific and New Zealand and mitigate the effects of the disease. I congratulate them on their prize.