National Consultation Workshop on Advocacy Strategies for the Elimination of Leprosy: “Leprosy Elimination and the Media”

New Delhi, India

Leprosy elimination is my lifework. It is something I have pursued for decades.

In my capacity as WHO Goodwill Ambassador for Leprosy Elimination, I have spent the past several years visiting the world’s remaining endemic countries. Our shared goal is global elimination by 2005.

As Goodwill Ambassador, I urge each country to give leprosy elimination a high priority in its public health policies. I enhance social awareness about the disease. And I personally motivate people in the field, offering advice and encouragement.

To this end, I meet with the political leaders of each country and seek their firm commitment. I push the media to disseminate correct information about the disease. I conduct advocacy work aimed at individuals, organizations and NGOs in the non-leprosy community.

In my work, I always advocate three simple, but important messages:

Leprosy is curable.
Treatment is free.
Social discrimination has no place.

Many government leaders are unaware of these three facts. Most of the general public understands even less. It is my firm belief that the media can play a crucial in relaying this information to the people.

However, from the media’s viewpoint, leprosy is only one social problem. We must identify the kind of information that readers and listeners will take an interest in. We must cooperate with the media to the utmost degree.

The importance of building an effective partnership with the media is the reason that we are here together today.

From ancient times, leprosy has brought misery to people. It is even mentioned in Indian documents of the 6th century B.C. In India today, however, the central government, state governments, international organizations and NGOs are combining their energy for the final push toward elimination by 2005. Elimination in India was once thought of as no more than a dream. Today, it has nearly been achieved. I would like to stress, to those of you in the press, the great historical importance of this.

The leprosy problem has two sides: medical and social. We will succeed in eliminating the medical problem within a couple of years. However, there is still a long way to go before we have eliminated the social stigma and human rights violations connected with the disease. These problems are not only faced by patients, but by those who are cured and their families as well. This fight is just now getting underway.

My own personal battle encompasses both the medical and social aspects of leprosy elimination. But it is particularly important for the media to grasp the human rights issue.

As I said, it is critical for the media to take up these three messages:

Leprosy is curable.
Treatment is free.
Discrimination has no place.

It is essential that the media spread these messages throughout India. We must let people know that this is not a fearsome disease. We must let them know that it is a large mistake to discriminate against those affected. This message must be taken to every single person in India.

In India, the medical integration of treatment is progressing well. Today, Public Health Services do not treat leprosy as a special sickness. Treatment can be obtained at any hospital. This is excellent. But in order for all three messages to reach every corner of society, I think we must achieve one more form of integration.

To facilitate the social rehabilitation of those affected by leprosy; to help them regain their dignity; to free them from this unreasonable discrimination—to do these things, we must integrate the efforts of government, the media, corporations, unions, schools and NGOs. We need to create a mass social movement through which correct knowledge can reach the people. And in this process, we must rely on the media to connect us with the people.

I firmly believe that it is our mission to work in close cooperation with the media. Our challenge is to resolve the problems associated with this negative heritage of mankind.