Coordinated thinking: (L to R) Paulus Manek, Dr. Sigit Priohutomo, the Goodwill Ambassador and Al Kadri in Jakarta on Oct. 2 (see p.5)
Some 16 years have passed since I first became the WHO’s Goodwill Ambassador for Leprosy Elimination. During that time, I have seen and heard various influential leaders, the media, filmmakers and others use leprosy as a metaphor for something bad. In doing so, they draw on associations of the disease as something frightening, incurable and “unclean.” Given that leprosy can be treated and cured, it is extremely regrettable that among world leaders are persons who make such insensitive remarks.
In June, French President Emmanuel Macron gave a speech in which he said that nationalists were rising “a bit like leprosy across Europe”; and again, in October, he decried “nationalist leprosy.” Wherever possible, I write to those concerned and ask them to reflect on what they are saying.
I have sent letters to Pope Francis on several occasions when he summoned the image of leprosy to condemn some aspect of the church establishment that he found wanting, and requested that he not do so. I wrote to the IOC and the Chinese government when it seemed that persons with leprosy would be banned from entering the country at the time of the Beijing Olympics and the issue was resolved. I also wrote to the makers of an animated film about a scene that depicted leprosy in a distorting light, and it was amended.
Recently, television commentators in the United States took to scaremongering about a “migrant caravan” as it approached the country’s southern border. They claimed that it carried with it the threat of disease outbreaks, including leprosy.
Fear, misinformation and ignorance have serious repercussions. In particular, I urge those in positions of influence to choose their words with care. I invite all of you to write your own letters of protest when you encounter instances of leprosy being used in a stigmatizing way. When you do, please refer to the UN resolution on elimination of discrimination against persons affected by leprosy and their family members adopted in December 2010.
I believe that the efforts each one of us takes, as they build up over time, will lead us toward a world where leprosy is no longer misunderstood.
- Yohei Sasakawa, WHO Goodwill Ambassador