Prime minister, other speakers call attention to the negative impact of discrimination.
In Japan, because of past policy, the human rights of people affected by leprosy were severely restricted. We reflected on this history and around 20 years ago there was a major change in policy. Former patients were offered an apology and compensation, and as part of the settlement a National Hansen’s Disease Museum was established.
Today there are over 1,700 former patients living in the nation’s sanatoriums. Their average age is over 83 and an increasing number require nursing care, without which their daily lives would be difficult. We will make efforts to help people still in sanatoriums live comfortably and peacefully, and to resolve discrimination and prejudice against leprosy.
In the past, Japan had a policy of segregation that caused pain and suffering for patients. On behalf of the government I would like to issue a heartfelt apology to all patients and people affected by leprosy and say that we are doing what we can to bring about an end to stigma and discrimination by educating the public about leprosy.
Discrimination against people with leprosy represents a serious violation of their human rights. As nurses, we understand the importance of equitable access to health services and of educating the public about this disease. The stigma and discrimination felt by individuals can be major barriers to utilizing health services for prevention, diagnosis and treatment. In addition, stigma and discrimination marginalizes those with the disease and affects their ability to fulfill necessary culturally expected and economically productive roles in society.
There is no more noble cause than embracing our unfortunate fellow human beings, our brothers and sisters, beloved children of God, afflicted by this illness and, for this reason, cast aside by society. As a result of the joint efforts of my own government, supported by WHO and the Nippon Foundation, my country, Timor-Leste, with less than one case per 10,000 people, eliminated leprosy a public health problem in 2010. However, countries like Brazil, India and Indonesia still have tens of thousands of new cases. The good news is that the new cases in these countries are gradually diminishing, leading us to be hopeful that with greater compassion and effort, leprosy can be eliminated in all afflicted countries around the world.
There is a cure for leprosy, it is free, and it is readily available. However, the stigma of leprosy causes many to refrain from seeking help, because they are afraid of having people find out about their condition. This in turn impacts our ability to eliminate leprosy. In South and Southeast Asia, home to more people affected by leprosy than any other region in the world, this is a serious problem.
In countries such as Japan, where leprosy is no longer a medical problem, the disease is for the most part considered a thing of the past. But I know of many individuals who, long after they have been cured, find that their families are still unable to accept them out of fear that they themselves will be discriminated against. And although people are no longer compulsorily confined within the walls of the leprosy sanatoria, years of social rejection that continue to this day have made most of them hesitant to leave.