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WHO Goodwill Ambassador's Newsletter For The Elimination Of Leprosy

AMBASSADOR’S JOURNAL: Flying Visits

The Goodwill Ambassador tours a hospital in Ecuador, hosts a lunch meeting in Switzerland and attends an anniversary in India.

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Greeting a resident at Hospital Gonzalo Gonzales

ECUADOR (October 15-18)

In October I traveled to Ecuador for the 3rd UN Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development (Habitat III). While there, I took the opportunity to visit the Hospital Gonzalo Gonzalez, which was established almost 90 years ago to treat leprosy. Today it is home to around 20 persons affected by the disease, who live in a residential area within the hospital compound.

Over the years, as the incidence of leprosy has declined and the approach to treatment has evolved, the hospital has been put to other uses. It also now serves as an in-patient facility for treating drug and alcohol abuse.

To my surprise, the hospital was only 10 minutes’ drive from my hotel in the capital, Quito; in my experience, such facilities are often in out-of-the-way locations. Quito is a small city, however, and by the time we reached our destination we had traversed several hills and found ourselves at the foot of a mountain. In that sense, the hospital was indeed set apart from the rest of the city, an impression emphasized by the sturdy gates at the entrance and the wall surrounding the compound.

In 2009, the government constructed 23 residences within the grounds where the 20 remaining residents now live. Their average age is 65, and the oldest resident is 84. There are 80 beds for in-patients but almost none of them are in use today.

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Yolanda Toro with examples of her wonderful handicrafts

I was invited by Yolanda Toro, the unofficial leader of the residents, to visit her home. She has lived at the hospital for 25 years. She likes to sew and make baskets as part of her rehabilitation. Her accommodation was neat and tidy, and there were examples of her work everywhere.

Yolanda, whose father also had leprosy, was originally from southern Peru. She entered the hospital at the age of 30. Her treatment began early, so she exhibits few after-effects of the disease. Before she entered hospital, however, her marriage broke up and she has had no contact with her family since.

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Copies of the magazine the hospital once published

After touring the grounds, I met all the residents for a chat. They gave me copies of a magazine that used to be published by the hospital. The first issue came out in 1961 and was aimed at persons affected by leprosy throughout the country. As well as information about the disease, it included articles on romance, daily living and also featured poetry and tributes to those who had died. The content was written by patients and an association of female volunteers.

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Scenes from the hospital grounds

Talking with the residents, I learned that their most pressing concern is the government’s desire to redevelop the hospital now that cases of leprosy are few and far between. Were this plan to be realized, it would mean that the residents would have to leave the place that has become their home. Understandably, the thought of being relocated is hard for them to accept and I hope an equitable solution is found.

 

SWITZERLAND (October 25-27)

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Hosting a luncheon for the IPU in Geneva

In October I travelled to Geneva for the 135th assembly of the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU). I was seeking the formal endorsement of this body—the world organization of national parliaments—for next year’s Global Appeal to end stigma and discrimination against persons affected by leprosy. I was delighted, therefore, when the IPU agreed to support Global Appeal 2017 at its executive board meeting.

Afterward, I hosted a lunch for IPU delegates to provide them with an opportunity to learn more about leprosy. Over 40 legislators from 23 countries attended. Among those I had the pleasure of meeting was the speaker of India’s Lok Sabha (lower house of Parliament), Ms. Sumitra Mahajan.

The event concluded with remarks from IPU chairman, Mr. Saber Hossain Chowdhury of Bangladesh, a man I hold in high regard for his contribution to abolishing his country’s outdated and discriminatory 1898 Lepers Act. I look forward to the IPU’s involvement in Global Appeal 2017 and to the impact its support for ending discrimination will have.

INDIA (November 19-21)

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Attending the S-ILF anniversary celebrations in Delhi

The Sasakawa-India Leprosy Foundation (S-ILF) was established in 2006 to support in the reintegration of people affected by leprosy into society. It celebrated its 10th anniversary in November. I flew to Delhi for the reception, which was hosted by Executive Director Vineeta Shanker (see page 5).

Over these ten years, as the most important pillar of its work, S-ILF has been expanding its activities to help residents of self-settled colonies to become economically independent through skills training and the provision of microloans for enterprises. It has also placed emphasis on education and vocational training of children growing up in these colonies. S-ILF has come a long way since its founding, but there is still much to be done. I am confident it will tackle the issues in close cooperation with people affected by leprosy.

The day after the reception, I attended the S-ILF board meeting. Mr. Tarun Das, who has served on the board since S-ILF’s inception, was elected chairman after Dr. S.K. Noordeen had indicated earlier in the year that he would be standing down for reasons of health. I would like to record my heartfelt thanks to Dr. Noordeen for his decade of service, and welcome Mr. Das to his new position.

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With (from L to R) WHO Director General Dr. Margaret Chan, IPU President Saber Chowdhury and Lok Sabha Speaker Sumitra Mahjan, in Geneva