Ensuring that children have a healthy future is a key task (Photograph taken at Jayapura Hospital, Papua Province, Indonesia, January 2014)
Visiting Timor-Leste in 2005, I was surprised to meet a 7-year-old leprosy patient. This January, when I went to Indonesia’s Papua Province, I came across a 4-year-old with leprosy. Fortunately, she had been diagnosed early and was receiving treatment, and showed no signs of disability.
Leprosy is not just a medical issue. These days, much attention is being paid to the stigma and discrimination it causes. To appreciate how much of a problem this is, one only has to look at the difficulties people face even after they have completed their treatment.
In the past, the health ministry of the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh arranged for pupils at government schools to be taught about leprosy and given a body chart to take home with them. Their assignment was to conduct a skin check of their family members for signs of leprosy. This approach was a boost to the early detection of new cases, especially among children.
I would like to see health ministries everywhere adopt this approach and engage in a major effort to uncover new cases, especially child cases. This has the added benefit of getting families to talk about leprosy. Not every child case will be diagnosed in this way, but if it became a social movement, I believe it would achieve excellent results.
Every parent wants their children to grow up healthy and free from stigma and discrimination. In that regard, the early diagnosis and treatment of child cases is one of the most important undertakings in the fight against leprosy, as preventing disability also acts as a shield against discrimination.
At 75, I grow impatient at how little time I have left to make difference, when I see the tragedies that leprosy still causes. I am also concerned by the slow progress we are making against the disease. Last year, 17 endemic countries signed the Bangkok Declaration, renewing their commitment to fight leprosy. The Nippon Foundation has made a commitment of US$20 million over a five-year period. Let all of us redouble our efforts to achieve a world without leprosy and its consequences.
- Yohei Sasakawa, WHO Goodwill Ambassador