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WHO Goodwill Ambassador's Newsletter For The Elimination Of Leprosy

SYMPOSIUM: A Race against Time

International meeting generates momentum for preserving leprosy history.

The makings of a network: participants pose for a group photo on the final day of the symposium in Tokyo.


A three-day conference on Leprosy/Hansen’s Disease History as Heritage of Humanity was held in Tokyo from January 28 to 30. Organized by Sasakawa Memorial Health Foundation, the conference drew some 40 participants from around 20 countries.

In recent years, there has been increasing interest in preserving leprosy history, prompted in part by recognition of the need to act swiftly as facilities close and as those who experienced life in sanatoria and suffered the consequences of past policies of segregation pass away. A major purpose of the conference, therefore, was to take stock of who is doing what and where, share this information and chart a way forward with an emphasis on more cross-cutting initiatives.

A pre-symposium session on January 27 took delegates to Japan’s National Hansen’s Disease Museum, where they heard the story behind the museum and the role it plays from some of the key figures responsible for its establishment, including Yasuji Hirasawa (see page 5). Country overviews later that day and on Day 1 of the symposium proper covered Ethiopia, Pacific island states, India, Brazil, Taiwan, South Korea, Malaysia, the Philippines, China and Thailand.

A wide variety of actors are needed to preserve the different facets of leprosy history. The conference explored this with presentations from academics, including Dr. Jane Buckingham (see page 4), representatives of national agencies such as Dr. Zainah Binti Ibrahim of Malaysia’s Department of National Heritage, and people affected by leprosy including Rosie Julaton Panganiban, who chairs the history committee of the Coalition of Leprosy Advocates of the Philippines.


Showcasing some of the legacies that leprosy has left behind in the form of the arts, there was a session on art, literature and creative products, including a fascinating account by Dr. John Manton of the musical legacy of Nigeria’s Ikoli Harcourt Whyte, as well as Patricia Devia Angarita’s discussion of the rich creative output of the Agua de Dios leprosy colony in Colombia.

A session on future scenarios looked at prospects for regional networks of collaborators in Latin America, Asia and Europe, and this was one of the points emphasized in the resolution signed by all participants on the final day. In agreeing that the history of leprosy “contains vital messages and lessons for the present and future of humanity and is thus worth preserving”, the resolution encouraged “in particular the formation of a network, both within a country and in regions, of groups of individuals of both public and private bodies interested in and working for the preservation of the heritage of leprosy.”

The symposium also acknowledged the 15 years of accumulated work of the International Leprosy Association’s Global Project on the History of Leprosy and served as an occasion to re-launch its database. Dr. Josephine Robertson of the University of Queensland talked delegates through some of the features of the new, more user-friendly website, which it is hoped will become a useful resource for all those working to preserve leprosy’s legacy or simply interested in knowing more about the rich history of this age-old disease.

The website can be found at