Residents of a leprosy colony in Balangir, Odisha state, India, visited by the Goodwill Ambassador in September.
Many of the leprosy hospitals and sanitaria I have visited in pursuit of my life’s work of eliminating leprosy are becoming relics of an earlier time. Before the development of an effective treatment, segregating people with leprosy had been seen as the best defense against a disease feared as highly infectious and incurable. Around the world, patients were shut away in these institutions.
Individuals who had committed no crime were isolated for decades. Even when released, they and their families remained tainted by the stigma of leprosy. Today Brazil is the only major country yet to pass the WHO’s interim target of reducing the prevalence of leprosy to less than 1 case per 10,000 population, yet leprosy-related discrimination remains deep-rooted in many parts of the world.
In other words, this discrimination is not confined to past history; it is part of our own history and we must work to ensure that this mindset is not transmitted to succeeding generations.
UNESCO established the Memory of the World program in 1992 to safeguard humanity’s valuable documentary heritage from loss and destruction. As part of this, I believe the heritage associated with leprosy very much deserves to be registered as a Memory of the World.
The discrimination that patients and their families have endured, and their struggle to regain their dignity and their rights, is a memory that humanity must preserve for succeeding generations.
One day, leprosy will become a disease of the past, but the knowledge that it was a starting point of discrimination in the world, that it is a negative legacy of humanity, needs to be kept alive through the ages.
A negative history also contains positives, and we can learn from the strength and grace of people who experienced those times. This is another reason why I would like to garner support for leprosy’s documentary heritage to be registered as a Memory of the World, and for this goal to be realized at an early date.
- Yohei Sasakawa, WHO Goodwill Ambassador