2005 African Leprosy Congress

Johanesburg, South Africa

I would like to begin by expressing my sincere gratitude to Her Excellency Dr. Mantombazana Tshabalala Msimang, Health Minister of the Republic of South Africa, for opening this congress with such a wonderful song. I also had the opportunity to speak with Her Excellency before the meeting. I was highly encouraged to hear from her that, although the issue of leprosy has not been addressed extensively so far during her term, she realized that there is a need to do more to inform the media and general public about the disease, and that she would do her best to adjust her schedule so that she can attend the upcoming workshop on Robben Island. As you know, this Congress has been organized by ILA, under the leadership of Dr. Nordeen. Dr. Nordeen has always been at the forefront of the medical battle against leprosy. His results to date have been phenomenal. I would like to express my deepest admiration for Dr. Nordeen for bringing together here today, not only the members of ILA, but a wide group of participants, including members of IDEA, ILEP and other organizations dedicated to the battle against leprosy. I firmly believe that we have all gathered here together for a common purpose: To create a world free of leprosy and a world free of discrimination.

As you know, WHO has been working toward the goal of reducing the prevalence rate of leprosy to less than one case in 10,000 people in every country in the world by the end of 2005, and drugs have been made available free of charge everywhere in the world in hopes of achieving this goal. The achievement of this goal will by no means mark the end of the battle against leprosy. However, there is no doubt that it is a very important milestone. I hope that we can all come together and work toward this goal.

I visited India before coming here and was glad to learn that they have reduced the prevalence rate to 1.98. I am confident that India will achieve elimination by the end of 2005. Following India’s example, I believe that it is important to set specific goals. To set them high. To give ourselves a goal to work towards. Fortunately, thanks to the concerted efforts of individuals and organizations around the world, we have come a long way in the medical battle against leprosy. Since the 1980s, 14 million people have been liberated from this disease. I myself have been traveling the world to spread correct knowledge about leprosy. I have repeated our three simple but important messages tens of thousands of times. Time and time again I have said:

Leprosy is curable.

Drugs are available free of charge.

Discrimination has no place.

Unfortunately, however, these messages have yet to reach many people. We must accelerate our efforts to this end.

Although the medical battle against leprosy is progressing smoothly, there is another important question that we must face. Have the 14 million people who have been liberated from this disease been able to find jobs and become assimilated back into society the way people who have been cured of other diseases such as tuberculosis or malaria have been able to? The medical advancements that have been made to date in the treatment of leprosy are truly remarkable. Yet it also true that discussions on discrimination and stigma have only just begun. Faced with this issue, I visited the United Nations Sub Commission on Human Rights for the first time two years ago. I was truly surprised to find that not even the members of the Sub Commission—all human rights experts—were aware that such a serious human rights problem existed. Together with the members of IDEA, who are also here today, I convinced the Sub Commission to investigate the issue. As a result, we are very fortunate to have with us here today, Mr. Yokota, the Japanese member of the UN Sub Commission on Human Rights. Mr. Yokota is here to listen to your opinions, comments, and stories, so that he can go back and share them with the other members of the Sub Commission.

I believe that this meeting is a truly historical occasion in the long history of leprosy. It has brought together cured persons from around the world, so that they can share their stories and voice their opinions. These stories are more powerful and revealing than anything I can say here on this stand. I believe that it is vital that we continue to work to improve the lives of cured persons, and provide opportunities for them to share their stories. Participants at this congress come from all walks of life, and while separate discussions and negotiations among the participants are highly important, I believe that Dr. Nordeen and his team organized this congress with the view of encouraging a larger discussion on how to achieve a world without leprosy and a world without discrimination. It is my sincere hope that the three messages; leprosy is curable, drugs are free, and discrimination has no place, will reach as many people around the world as possible. I would like to ask everyone here today for your kind support to that end.

(David Karashima, Translator)