WHO Sasakawa Health Prize Award Ceremony

Geneva, Switzerland

This year marks the twenty-third anniversary of the Sasakawa Health Prize. It was established in 1984 in response to the WHO’s “Health for All” initiative.

I feel very proud that we have had the opportunity to honor people and institutions that have made an outstanding contribution to health development.

This year’s winner, Dr. Jose Antonio Socrates, is an orthopedic surgeon from the Philippines. Working in Palawan, an island located in the western part of the country, he has devoted many years to addressing the rural population’s lack of access to medical treatment.

Through two NGOs that he founded, he has trained community health workers and midwives, aiming to improve health services in remote areas.

I congratulate Dr. Socrates on his award. And I would like to express my appreciation to the WHO and the selection committee for choosing such a deserving winner.

For people living in outlying regions, the kind of work Dr. Socrates has undertaken is extremely important and is a goal of primary health care.

I say this from my own experience over the past 30 years, working to eliminate leprosy from the world. The various partners in this fight, including the WHO have trained doctors, nurses and health workers how to diagnose and treat leprosy. In this way, we have provided people with access to leprosy treatment anywhere in the world.

This has led to a drastic drop in the numbers of patients and leprosy-endemic countries over the past three decades.

But I came to realize that by focusing on the medical aspect of leprosy, I neglected its social aspect. Although the disease is completely curable, many misperceptions persist. As a result, people affected by leprosy and their families still face barriers to social integration because of stigma and discrimination.

Consequently, we need to correct the public’s misguided perception toward leprosy. We need to create a world in which people affected by the disease are embraced as members. In other words, we must transform society by curing it of the disease of stigma.

For this, it is important for us to motivate medical workers as well as people affected by leprosy to speak up themselves. In addition, we are working with politicians, journalists, educators, business people, NGOs and local communities to inform people about the disease—not just its medical aspect but also its social aspect. I am sure this approach can be applied to fight against other problems as well.

The year 2008 will mark the 30th anniversary of the Declaration of Alma-Ata, which adopted primary health care as the principal strategy of achieving health for all.

Both the Declaration of Alma-Ata as well as the WHO Constitution define health as a state of complete physical, mental, and social wellbeing—not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.

Social aspect of the disease is equally important as medical aspect and much more need to be done to ensure “social well-being.”

Let us use the coming 12 months to think again about primary health care and how we can realize the vision of “health for all.”

Once again, I would like to congratulate Dr. Socrates.