Global Appeal 2007 Launch Ceremony ~To End Stigma and Discrimination against People Affected by Leprosy~
I am delighted that Global Appeal 2007, to end stigma and discrimination against people affected by leprosy, is being presented here in Manila today. By way of introduction, please allow me to give a brief background on the activities leading up to it.
I have been working for the global elimination of leprosy for more than 30 years, spending more than a third of my time working in countries with leprosy problems. The beginning of my quest actually came at the hands of my late father, Ryoichi Sasakawa, who passed away in 1995. When he was young boy, he met a beautiful young girl in his village with whom, it seems, he fell in love. Then one day, she disappeared from the village. He heard that the reason was that she had gotten leprosy and been taken away by the police. Faced with such a sad experience, my father felt a rising sense of justice, and began to work to eradicate leprosy from the world, eventually turning this quest into his life’s work. I, as his son, have inherited his will and have continued to fight the disease.
Working with the World Health Organization and other partners worldwide, The Nippon Foundation has made intensive efforts in this field for more than thirty years, including a five year period from 1995 to 1999 when we funded the free provision of Multi Drug Therapy (MDT) in every country of the world. Following this initial push, Novartis, a pharmaceutical company, has taken up the baton and is now providing this service. As a result, leprosy has been brought under control in 116 countries, remaining endemic in only five. The WHO goal is to reduce its prevalence to less than one case per 10,000 people at the national level. This target—the elimination of leprosy as a public health problem—is very likely to be achieved in two to three years, even though the disease is one of the oldest ailments known to mankind.
This shows that WHO’s public health program has been very successful. But for us, the elimination of leprosy is only a milestone. Even when it has been brought under control worldwide, our activities will not cease.
MDT was developed in the 1980s, and to date has cured 15 million people. The fact that the number of patients discovered worldwide each year has plummeted to a few hundred thousand is a huge source of satisfaction.
We have made a concerted effort to eliminate leprosy as a public health problem, and I absolutely believe that the things we have done so far have been correct. However, when I have examined the question of whether those 15 million people who were liberated from leprosy could find their places in the community, as people who recover from other diseases can, I have been profoundly shocked.
Today, we have with us people from across the Philippines who have been cured of leprosy. There are also participants from India, Indonesia and China. They have all fully recovered. And yet, their societies have not yet cast off their stigma and prejudice against this disease and the people affected. They are reluctant to acknowledge that people who have had leprosy have been cured. This is because, over the centuries, incorrect information about the disease has become ingrained at all levels of society. There are still misconceptions that leprosy is a divine punishment, that it is hereditary, or that it is easily communicable. These ideas have left people with a deep-rooted discrimination.
In my work in various parts of the world, I have met with, shaken hands with, and hugged leprosy-affected people. I have tried to convey correct messages to the general public so that the misconceptions can be dispelled. But I have also found that the things I can do are limited, and that more people from various fields need to work together.
Fortunately, we have been meeting with success in bringing together people from outside the leprosy field, and in 2006, our first Global Appeal was supported by prominent world leaders, including former U.S. president Jimmy Carter and His Holiness the Dalai Lama.
In view of this, I have appealed to those who have been personally challenged by the disease, and who have triumphed. When I have met them, I have said to them, “You are no longer alone. World leaders are also prepared to fight with you against the stigma and discrimination associated with leprosy.”
A good number of these people have agreed with me, and for this, I am sincerely thankful. However, many are still forced to live in a segregated world as in the past. Why do such conditions continue? Why must cured people continue to live, abandoned and silent, even after they have been cured?
The reason is that they are still afraid that to speak out would worsen the discrimination. Despite this, many cured people have had the courage to raise their voices around the world. I ask for your cooperation so that these people may be accepted by their community.
Do you know why I wanted to hold this Global Appeal 2007 conference in Manila? 2006 was the 100th anniversary of the establishment of a leprosy colony on Culion Island. I participated in the commemorative ceremony. As you know, Culion Island was known as an island of despair, inhabited by those who had lost their dreams and hope.
Now, however, the “island of despair” has turned into an island of hope, thanks to the efforts of its recently elected first mayor, Mr. Hilarion M Guia. This work has seen the image of the island change completely, and today people have begun migrating to it from other islands. I know of no other place than Culion Island, where people affected by leprosy live together with those who have never known the disease. Culion Island, the Philippines, is a brilliant success story, and that is why Manila was chosen as the venue for Global Appeal 2007.
Finally, I would like to take this opportunity to say again to all people, both in the Philippines and throughout the world, that leprosy is curable. Drugs are available everywhere. Leprosy is a mere illness, so stigma and discrimination have no place. I would like to ask everyone around the world to remember these messages.