Recently the WHO has been putting greater efforts into the fight against neglected tropical diseases, or NTDs. Private foundations, pharmaceutical manufacturers and other partners are also becoming more active in this field. I warmly welcome this development.
But I have one reservation, and that is the term "neglected tropical diseases" itself. This represents the standpoint of experts and donors. People living with these diseases around-the-clock cannot forget their condition even for a second. I believe it is disdainful of those seeking to come to their aid to call these diseases "neglected." As long as there are patients who are suffering, there should be no such thing as a "neglected disease."
While it is wonderful that so many donors are now joining the fight against NTDs, joint efforts with the governments of the developing countries concerned will be a must. But 30 years ago, when I first started working for leprosy elimination, my insistence that it was essential to cooperate with individual governments placed me in a minority. Back then many NGOs were not inclined to work with corrupt third-world governments, and my efforts attracted criticism.
But public health problems only get solved by concerted efforts based on mutual cooperation among the WHO, the governments concerned, NGOs and other stakeholders. Vindicating my assertion is the fact that we are drawing near the day when leprosy will have been eliminated as a public health problem in every country in the world.
The elimination of leprosy is a remarkable public health success story not seen since the eradication of smallpox. I believe it serves as an excellent example for stakeholders who are aiming to eliminate other NTDs besides leprosy.
But there are still many challenges to overcome. Every year, some 200,058 new cases of leprosy are diagnosed. For the rest of my life I intend to redouble my efforts to root out the disease and fight the stigma and discrimination it causes.
- Yohei Sasakawa, WHO Goodwill Ambassador