In May I attended the World Health Assembly in Geneva. While there, I was honored to have my term as Goodwill Ambassador extended by the WHO's director-general, Dr. Margaret Chan.
I first began my duties as a leprosy elimination ambassador in 2001, which means I have now held this post for over 10 years. In that time I have traveled to 112 countries and had meetings with over 160 current and former political leaders. When I presented Dr. Chan with a list of all the people I have called on, she expressed her delight and shook me firmly by the hand. "That's why I am reappointing you!" she said.
In the past decade, thanks to the efforts of the WHO, governments, NGOs, medical personnel and other stakeholders, the number of countries that have eliminated leprosy as a public health problem has risen to 121. Brazil, the one country yet to pass the elimination milestone, has mapped out a fresh approach under its new president and health minister and has publicly declared it will achieve elimination by 2015. If all goes well, there is a possibility that every country in the world will have achieved this goal during my tenure.
But as I have repeated many times in these pages, elimination of leprosy is but a global milestone. Achieving it does not mean our fight against the disease is at an end. Moreover, the battle against stigma and discrimination is only now starting to get on track.
In different countries - in certain states, in particular regions - leprosy is still widespread. All stakeholders have a shared understanding that elimination (a prevalence rate of the disease of less than 1 case per 10,000 people) is not, in and of itself, something to be overly celebrated.
When every country has achieved elimination, this will of course mark a public health milestone. But as we move beyond that marker, I promise to strengthen my activities and make further progress together with you all.
- Yohei Sasakawa, WHO Goodwill Ambassador