The Goodwill Ambassador discusses leprosy with Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi during the latter’s recent visit to Japan.
|With Prime Minister Modi in Tokyo in September|
Recently I had the pleasure of meeting Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who made time during his official visit to Japan to see me. India has the highest number of leprosy cases in the world, so any opportunity to discuss the disease with the prime minister is to be welcomed.
It was our first encounter, so I introduced my role as the WHO Goodwill Ambassador for Leprosy Elimination and my foundation’s involvement with India, a country that in 2013 reported around 127,000 new cases of leprosy, or about 59% of the global caseload.
The Nippon Foundation has contributed some US$100 million to India’s leprosy control activities to date. We also launched the Sasakawa-India Leprosy Foundation (SILF) in 2006 with an endowment of US$10 million. SILF provides grant loans to fund microenterprises run by people affected by leprosy, arranges educational opportunities and engages in awareness-building and advocacy.
In addition, we support the Association of People Affected by Leprosy (APAL). Based in Hyderabad, it serves as a nationwide networking organization for residents of India’s 850 leprosy colonies as well as others affected by the disease
India achieved the goal of eliminating leprosy as a public health problem at the national level in 2005. At the time, this was hailed as a remarkable achievement. Since then, however, it has proved more difficult to make further progress at the state and district levels, where it is necessary to strengthen efforts for the early detection and treatment of leprosy at the grassroots level.
I told Prime Minister Modi I appreciated that India has many pressing public health concerns; nevertheless, I hoped that it would make leprosy a high priority.
The prime minister was curious to know how I became involved in leprosy work. I told him I was following the lead of my father, one of whose early acts against the disease was to help fund a leprosy hospital in Agra, Uttar Pradesh, in the 1960s.
Mr. Modi talked of Mahatma Gandhi and his commitment to helping people with leprosy. Gandhi was born in Gujarat, the state in western India that Mr. Modi served as chief minister from 2001 until his election as prime minister of India earlier this year.
My next visit to India is scheduled for November. Mr. Modi asked to be kept informed of my plans and I very much hope it will be possible to continue our conversation. I would appreciate the opportunity to introduce him to the leadership of APAL so that he may hear directly from the people affected about the issues they face.
India still faces many challenges where leprosy is concerned, both in terms of diagnosing and treating new cases and in combating the discrimination leprosy continues to attract. Ensuring that everyone knows that leprosy is curable, treatment is free and discrimination has no place is essential. To hear such a message coming from the Indian prime minister would have tremendous impact. I look to Mr. Modi to lead the way.