I was in Vietnam when I learned of the passing of former WHO Director-General Dr. Hiroshi Nakajima, who died on January 26 in Poitiers, France.
Between 1978 and 1988, Dr. Nakajima served as Regional Director of the WHO's Western Pacific Region, where he took a keen interest in leprosy. Later, as Director-General, he would kick off the campaign to eliminate leprosy as a public health problem - something we must never forget.
One of Dr. Nakajima's successors as Director-General, Dr. J.W. Lee, was also committed to eliminating leprosy. As a promising young doctor, he had received a fellowship from Sasakawa Memorial Health Foundation to study in Hawaii. He later became acquainted with Dr. Nakajima on a plane, which led to him being recruited by the WHO.
During Dr. Nakajima's 10-year term from 1988, he was operated on for stomach cancer; however, that did not stop him from traveling the world. Throughout his tenure, he maintained a humanitarian perspective and took very seriously the concept of "health for all," which he strove hard to achieve. He always attached importance to having a hands-on approach and going to see the situation for himself, as evidenced when he visited then-Zaire following the outbreak of the Ebola virus. In this respect, he had a big influence on the way I do things.
Dr. Nakajima presided over the 1991 World Health Assembly, which adopted a resolution to eliminate leprosy as a public health problem by the year 2000. Three years later, at a conference in Hanoi, I announced that The Nippon Foundation would pay for the free distribution of multidrug therapy (MDT) for five years from 1995. I did so convinced that the elimination of leprosy - defined as reducing the prevalence of the disease to below 1 case per 10,000 population - was possible under Dr. Nakajima's strong leadership.
Dr. Nakajima was a wine-lover and sommelier. I regret he will not be able to toast the day when Brazil becomes the final country to pass this public health milestone. May he rest in peace.
- Yohei Sasakawa, WHO Goodwill Ambassador