Release -- Five years battling the leprosy stigmaGlobal appeal to end groundless discrimination

Global appeal to end groundless discrimination

On 25 January 2010, an appeal will be made to the world to end the stigma which blights the lives of millions of people affected by leprosy. Launching from Mumbai in India, a country where the leprosy burden is the largest in the world and where 134,000 new cases of the disease were detected last year, the Global Appeal 2010 will be endorsed by figures from the corporate world willing to demonstrate their concern for this denial of human rights. This is the fifth appeal of a series initiated by Yohei Sasakawa, Chairman of The Nippon Foundation, Japan’s largest grant-making foundation. Sasakawa is also World Health Organisation (WHO) Goodwill Ambassador for the Elimination of Leprosy and Japanese Government Goodwill Ambassador for the Human Rights of Persons Affected by Leprosy. He has described the elimination of leprosy and its attendant stigma as his ‘life’s work’, and travels extensively to endemic countries, visiting leprosy-affected communities, raising public awareness of the damaging stigma and eliciting political commitment from local authorities to improve the welfare of people affected by leprosy. Leprosy is among the world’s oldest diseases and if left untreated it can result in severe deformity. However, a cure in the form of multi-drug therapy (MDT) was developed in the 1980s, and has been made available for free to all who need it by the WHO, initially with funding from The Nippon Foundation. More than 16 million people have now been cured of leprosy with MDT and there are now only three countries, Brazil, Nepal and Timor-Leste, where it is still considered a public health problem. Since 1985, 119 countries have achieved the WHO’s elimination target of fewer than one patient per 10,000 population. Yet, this significant progress in public health has so far failed to remedy the stigma so regularly associated with people affected by leprosy and even members of their families. In many communities those who have encountered the disease are subject to discrimination and social exclusion, which affects their employment and marriage prospects and deprives them of basic human rights. They are described using the derogatory term ‘leper’, and are often treated as pariahs. Many are compelled to live their lives separately from the rest of society although they are free from disease and contagion. Yohei Sasakawa comments, “Only when all societies understand that leprosy can be easily and completely cured, and that leprosy affected people and their families must not be set apart, can we say that the battle against leprosy has truly been won.” Six years ago, Sasakawa made his first approach to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights on behalf of those denied their human rights by the leprosy stigma. Since then support has been enlisted from NGOs, affected communities and ultimately the Japanese Government, and the increased lobbying of the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) culminated in the unanimous approval in June 2008 of a resolution condemning discrimination against people affected by leprosy. The HRC Advisory Committee was tasked with drafting a set of principles and guidelines for eliminating stigma and discrimination against leprosy-affected people, and the final draft is scheduled to be submitted to the HRC for endorsement in September 2010. These efforts to wipe out the leprosy stigma have been flagshipped for the past five years by the Global Appeals, which are held in late January to co-ordinate with World Leprosy Day. The first, launched in January 2006 in Delhi, was signed by 12 world leaders including President Lula de Silva of Brazil and former Presidents Ramaswami Ventataraman (India), Mary Robinson (Ireland), Oscar Arias (Costa Rica) and Jimmy Carter (USA). The following year, endorsement was sought from leaders of leprosy affected communities who have personally overcome the challenge brought by the disease. In January 2008, the Appeal was held in London and was supported by organisations specialising in the human rights of the socially vulnerable, including Amnesty International, International Save the Children Alliance and Leonard Cheshire Disability. Last January the Global Appeal 2009 was launched once again from London, this time at Church House, Westminster, where Sasakawa was joined by leaders from religious faiths around the world. Signatories included Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, the Dalai Lama, the Chairman of the Indonesian Council of Ulamas, the President of the Japan Buddhist Federation, the Chief Rabbi of Israel, the President of the Pontifical Council for Health Pastoral Care at the Vatican and the General Secretary of the World Council of Churches. The multi-faith representatives who attended the launch event in London came together to create an inspiring occasion. At the Global Appeal 2009 launch, special attention was drawn to the discriminatory word ‘leper,’ the abandonment of which was recommended in a resolution adapted by the International Leprosy Association far back in 1948 but is still in common usage in the media. The fifth Global Appeal will be endorsed by world business leaders, delivering the message that people affected by leprosy are entitled to the same social and economic opportunities and empowerment as everyone else.

Notes to Editors

    1. Yohei Sasakawa has served as WHO Goodwill Ambassador for Leprosy Elimination since 2001, and has also been appointed Goodwill Ambassador for the Human Rights of Persons Affected by Leprosy by the Government of Japan since 2007. Mr Sasakawa joined The Nippon Foundation as a trustee in 1981, served as President from 1989 and became Chairman on 1 July 2005.
    2. The Nippon Foundation’s overall objectives include assistance for humanitarian activities, both at home and abroad, and global maritime development. For over 30 years, The Nippon Foundation has been involved with the global campaign to eliminate leprosy working with the WHO, governments, international organisations and NGOs. One example of this work is the funding through the WHO, between 1995 and 1999, of free multi-drug therapy (MDT) for every leprosy-affected person in the world.