|With the “young ambassadors” of the Gandhi Sonarah +2 High School|
During my visit to Jharkhand State, I found myself looking into the eager faces of some 350 teenagers who had assembled in the grounds of the Gandhi Sonarah +2 High School. They had been taught about leprosy as part of the Sparsh leprosy awareness campaign initiated last year by India’s National Leprosy Eradication Program under Dr. Anil Kumar.
Sparsh (Hindi for “touch”) is an ambitious project devised by Dr. Kumar to reach out to all 600,000 villages across India. It provides people with information about the symptoms of leprosy and its treatment, and seeks to dispel myths and misconceptions about the disease. The aim is to ensure that people who develop the disease feel able to come forward early for treatment, encouraged by their community, and do not suffer discrimination at the hands of their neighbors.
The campaign takes different forms: ASHA health workers visit homes and provide information; there are informative skits about leprosy in public spaces; people affected by the disease speak about their experiences; and school children who have been sensitized about leprosy pass on what they have learned to those around them.
Such advocacy is an important part of my own role as Goodwill Ambassador. I seek the political commitment of leaders at national and state level to maintain efforts against the disease and the discrimination it causes; I speak to the public about leprosy through the media; and I address local communities.
There is only so much that one person can do, however. So when I heard the 350 schoolchildren I met in Jharkhand pledge in unison to pass on correct information about leprosy, I was greatly encouraged. “They become ambassadors,” the head teacher told me proudly. “This is a Gandhi school, so all students are committed to a leprosy-free India. It is an important mission of ours.” The Nippon Foundation is supporting a similar initiative with Junior Chamber International (JCI) India to educate youth about leprosy and give them the skills to educate others.
Instilling community awareness and participation is crucial. It helps to promote self-reporting and early diagnosis and treatment, and reduce stigma. I am happy to know these “young ambassadors” are playing such an important role.