In terms of area and population, Timor-Leste and India are polar opposites. But one thing they now have in common is a notable public health achievement: the elimination of leprosy as a public health problem. Timor-Leste became the latest country to reach this milestone, which was officially recognized at a ceremony in Dili in March. India attained this landmark at the end of 2005.
Although I have made far fewer visits to Timor-Leste than I have to India, I have felt equally supportive of its efforts to tackle the disease. For such a young nation, formed only in 2002, this is a proud achievement. To my regret, I could not be present for the ceremony as I was supervising emergency relief efforts for survivors of the earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan on March 11. However, I understand it was a wonderful occasion and that President Jose Ramos-Horta himself attended.
For India, bringing the prevalence of the disease down below one case per 10,000 population was similarly a historic moment. Given the millions of cases the country used to account for, this once seemed an impossible dream.
There is a I reason why I bring together Timor-Leste and India. I want to recognize Timor-Leste and all who made this achievement possible, but I also want to draw attention to the experience of India since 2005. There are still areas of the country where the disease is a serious problem. It is evident too that the political commitment that made elimination possible is weakening.
As I have always emphasized, and as the case of India shows, elimination is not the end of the road; there is still much work to do. I am confident, however, that India will not let its progress falter, while I am sure Timor-Leste will heed the lessons that India can teach.
Now only Brazil has yet to pass this milestone. Under a new president and new health minister, I am hopeful Brazil will redouble its efforts. I will be following its progress closely. Should it require any assistance, let us give it every support.
- Yohei Sasakawa, WHO Goodwill Ambassador