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WHO Goodwill Ambassador's Newsletter For The Elimination Of Leprosy

AMBASSADOR’S JOURNAL: The IBA Is 'On the Case'

Yohei Sasakawa wears two hats on a visit to Myanmar last December. Then, in January, he travels to the U.K. for the launch of the annual Global Appeal to end stigma and discrimination against people affected by leprosy.

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With a resident of Mawlamyine Christian Leprosy Hospital (top); hospital exterior (above)

MYANMAR (DECEMBER 21)

Myanmar eliminated leprosy as a public health problem in 2003, but continues to detect a steady number of new cases - 3,092 in 2011, according to the WHO. At the time of diagnosis, just over 15% were suffering from visible disability.

Visiting the country at the end of last year in my capacity as the Japanese government's Goodwill Ambassador for the Welfare of the National Races in Myanmar, I took time out from my schedule to visit a leprosy hospital in southern Mon State. I was accompanied by Mr. Tin Aung Swe, the vice president of the Myanmar Christian Leprosy Mission and president of the national council of the YMCA in Myanmar.

Mawlamyine Christian Leprosy Hospital is located in the Mon state capital, approximately 300 kilometers southeast of Yangon. It was founded in 1908 and at one time was run by the American Baptist Mission.

Today the hospital provides a range of in- and out-patient services for leprosy. These include ulcer care, plastic and reconstructive surgery, physiotherapy, eye care, and prevention of disability education. There is also a workshop for making mobility aids and footwear for leprosy. In addition, the hospital offers livelihood training for people affected by the disease and their families.

I toured the hospital with its 35-year-old director, Dr. Chan Lwin, and spoke with a number of patients, young and old, who are receiving treatment. I also met with some people affected by leprosy living in the hospital precincts. Apparently there are around 50 such families living at Mawlamyine, in some cases, I am sure, because discrimination prevents them living elsewhere.

Reflecting on this visit, I hope that Myanmar remains vigilant against leprosy and works hard to reduce the percentage of new cases with disability. No one with leprosy should have to suffer disability because they were not diagnosed soon enough, and no one should have to endure being stigmatized by the disease and its consequences.

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Splendid setting: the Law Society

UNITED KINGDOM (January 23-26)

In January I flew to London to participate in the 8th annual Global Appeal to end stigma and discrimination against people affected by leprosy. This year's appeal was endorsed by the International Bar Association (IBA) and launched in the splendid setting of the Law Society building, which dates back to 1832.

If last year's appeal was of great significance, because the medical profession spoke out to dispel myths and misconceptions about the disease, then I believe this year's appeal is equally important, as it has trained the sights of the legal profession on discriminatory legislation. All laws that discriminate on the grounds of leprosy need to be abolished without delay. Therefore, to know that the IBA is "on the case" is a very encouraging development indeed.

I understand that the IBA plans to engage in a dialogue with its member associations about the role that bar associations can play in lobbying for any discriminatory legislation to be repealed in their respective countries. Needless to say, I will do everything in my power to follow up these efforts. Abolishing discriminatory laws is an essential step for restoring the human rights of people affected by leprosy and there is still much to do.

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I would like to thank Lucy Scott-Moncrieff, the president of the Law Society of England and Wales, which hosted the event, and her colleagues. I extend my gratitude to Baroness Kennedy and Akira Kawamura, who spoke eloquently and passionately at the launch ceremony. In particular, I thank Chairman Narsappa and Vice-chairman Venugopal of the National Forum India. When addressing the ceremony they gave a real insight into what it means to be affected by leprosy and demonstrated what I have often said, that the voices of people affected by the disease carry more weight than anything I might say on their behalf. Let me close this entry of my Journal by remembering those we have lost in January. In addition to Dr. Nakajima, who I have written about in my Message, and my friend Dr. Gokhale, who is recalled below, I would also like mention Mr. S.K. Dutta.

An activist who lived in a leprosy colony in Delhi, Mr. Dutta selflessly devoted his life to fighting for the underprivileged, making them aware of their rights and teaching them how to use those rights. He was a man of action, passion and persistence, who endeared himself to one and all, whether they were of high social status or grass-roots workers. As I write these words I can see his charming smile. I will miss him.