Opening Ceremony of the National Conference on the Elimination of Leprosy

Raipur, India

Please let me begin by expressing my deepest gratitude to Chairman S.K. Noordeen, Secretary General C.S. Walter and all members of the Organizing Committee. Without their dedication and exhaustive efforts, this conference would not have been possible. In addition, we owe a deep debt of thanks to His Excellency Minister K.K. Gupta for his patronage.

As is found in Indian classics from the sixth century B.C., leprosy has been a feared disease, a scourge of humanity, since the dawn of recorded time. I myself have been committed to anti-leprosy activities for more than 30 years. My motivation stems from my belief that leprosy is the first form of social discrimination in human history. Thus it has become my life’s work to eliminate this disease and remove discrimination from the face of the globe.

Our common goal is the elimination of leprosy by the end of 2005. This will be a historical achievement. With less than two years remaining, the timing of today’s conference is therefore crucial.

India is home to 70% of the world’s leprosy patients and will have an especially difficult path. I have witnessed, however, through my five visits to this country last year, how national and local government, private organizations and NGOs alike are all working together on the challenging task of elimination.

The country’s political leaders possess the strength of will to defeat the disease. India’s endemic states are devising and carrying out well-conceived elimination strategies. Health workers are pushing forward with enthusiasm and commitment.

For this, I have only the highest praise. Nevertheless, frankly speaking, I strongly feel that a sense of urgency is lacking. I often quote a Japanese saying, “On a 100-mile journey, the 99th mile is no more than halfway.” We have the chance to rid the world of a scourge that has been with us for millennia, yet I am afraid we are only halfway there. Our time limit is nearing. It is more important than ever that we maintain our sense of urgency. The year 2004 is crucial.

We must mobilize the general public. We must disseminate accurate information about leprosy not only to people associated with leprosy work but also to the people in the non-leprosy community. The messages need to be sent out across all sectors, horizontally.

And to do this, we need to make greater efforts ourselves. We need the media’s help. We need to initiate a social movement for awareness-building. The following three messages need to be spread through every channel possible:

Leprosy is curable;
Free treatment is available;
Social discrimination has no place.

With these words to guide us, let us go forward and complete the rest of our journey. I am determined to devote the rest of my life to this work and would like to ask all of you to join me in completing the final mile.