In 1991, the World Health Assembly resolved to reduce the prevalence of leprosy below 1 case per 10,000 people, a decision that generated momentum and secured political commitment for eliminating leprosy as a public health problem. At the time, 88 countries had yet to pass that milestone; today only one country has still to do so.
But the current situation does not fill me with optimism. On the contrary, I feel a sense of alarm. As I travel the world, I get the clear impression that health ministries are losing interest in leprosy. Actually, you can see this in the figures. In recent years, annual new case numbers have stopped declining. In some countries, the numbers are even going up; many report pockets of high endemicity.
While the burden of leprosy in the world is much less than in the past, we must not grow complacent and allow our hard work to be undone. We need to generate fresh momentum and secure renewed political commitment. Health ministries face many pressing issues, but leprosy has caused untold damage to human beings and we are at a critical juncture in our fight. With a shared sense of crisis we need to review our course of action. This is why I am organizing a Leprosy Summit in July in Bangkok, in conjunction with the WHO Southeast Asia Regional Office.
Last month, I met with health ministers and officials from some dozen countries at the World Health Assembly in Geneva, urging them to attend the summit. At the beginning of June, I spoke with six African leaders at a major international conference in Japan, where I asked them to redouble their efforts against leprosy and send representatives to Bangkok. They responded positively.
At this summit, I want political leaders who understand the critical situation in their countries to renew their commitment to leprosy control. I believe this will inject new life into our fight. We still have a long way to go. Every person suffering from leprosy and its consequences deserves our utmost efforts.
- Yohei Sasakawa, WHO Goodwill Ambassador