The Goodwill Ambassador speaks with Pope Francis during a Papal Audience in St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City on June 8.
As the WHO’s Goodwill Ambassador for Leprosy Elimination, I strive to convey correct information about leprosy by sharing three simple messages all over the world: leprosy is curable, treatment is free, and social discrimination has no place.
Since I launched an annual Global Appeal to End Stigma and Discrimination against People Affected by Leprosy in 2006, the appeal has been endorsed by influential individuals and organizations ranging from Nobel laureates and religious leaders to the World Medical Association, International Bar Association and International Council of Nurses.
Among these, I believe that the world’s faiths have the most important role to play in raising awareness, since they touch so many lives. There is also a history of religious figures such as Saint Damien and Mother Teresa having very close contact with and deep empathy for people with leprosy.
My father Ryoichi Sasakawa was invited to the Vatican in 1983, where he had an audience with Pope John Paul II and promised to eradicate leprosy from the world. I accompanied him and it remains a vivid memory. Later I would have the opportunity to meet Pope John Paul II again in 2002, and explain the current leprosy situation.
Most recently, in response to my request, the Pontifical Council for Health Care Workers agreed to jointly organize with The Nippon Foundation a symposium on leprosy at the Vatican in June. The two-day meeting brought together people affected by leprosy, human rights experts, NGOs, the WHO and representatives of the Catholic Church and other major faiths from 45 countries. For a conference on leprosy, it was without precedent.
Participants gave their assent to Conclusions and Recommendations that include a strong call to end discrimination. It is more than I could have dreamed of that these will reach the world’s 1.2 billion Catholic faithful.
It is my hope that other religions will also position leprosy as an important, unresolved medical and social issue facing humankind, and work to spread accurate knowledge in order to eliminate the disease and the discrimination it brings.
- Yohei Sasakawa, WHO Goodwill Ambassador