Global Appeal 2008 Launch Ceremony ~To End Stigma and Discrimination against People Affected by Leprosy~
Your Excellencies, my Lords, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen.
Thank you for attending today’s launch of Global Appeal 2008. As the person who initiated this appeal, let me express my deepest gratitude to the associations and to their representatives here today, who have endorsed it. I would also like to thank the Royal Society of Medicine for allowing us to use this illustrious venue.
This is in fact the third Global Appeal to end discrimination against people affected by leprosy since 2006. Why the need for three appeals, you may wonder? Let me explain.
Leprosy is one of the world’s oldest diseases. And as old as the disease is the discrimination it causes. If untreated, leprosy can cause deformity, a stigma for those who suffer from it. This has been the case for much of history. The good news is, leprosy is now completely curable.
16 million people have been cured since new drugs became available in the 1980s. Yet the stigma attached to leprosy is deep-rooted. It is not easily eradicated. That is why repeated appeals are necessary to highlight the problem.
Ending discrimination is important both medically and socially.
First, there are still 250,000 new cases of leprosy diagnosed annually. Some of these cases are already indicating irreversible disabilities. This is because people often delay coming forward for treatment due to the social stigma. This must be prevented.
Second, people affected by leprosy are still being discriminated against, even after they are cured. Sometimes, this is because of how they look. To the uninformed, deformity equates with infection, even though the leprosy bacillus has been killed by drugs. Other times, it is because of what communities believe–that a person who has had leprosy is to be considered outcast, or that he or she has been punished by God. The taint of leprosy extends to whole families, denying them opportunities for education, employment and social and economic advancement. Decent people who have done nothing wrong are not being given a fair chance to participate in society.
I have been involved in the fight against leprosy for some 40 years–the last four of these as a WHO Goodwill Ambassador. In that time, remarkable progress has been made on the medical front. Only four countries have yet to eliminate the disease as a public health problem, as defined by the World Health Organization. They too will do so before long.
Wherever I go, my message is the same: leprosy is curable, treatment is free, social discrimination has no place. Yet everywhere I see barriers preventing people affected by leprosy from leading normal lives. Over time, I came to realize that medicine alone is not enough. To tackle the disease’s social aspect, we have to change the way society thinks about leprosy.
One way I have sought to do this is by approaching the UN Human Rights Council. I would like to see the Council draw up principles and guidelines to end discrimination against people affected by leprosy. Eventually, I would like to see these adopted by the UN General Assembly, and see them applied by member states.
Another way is by initiatives such as the newly launched Sasakawa-India Leprosy Foundation. This is a foundation to empower people via scholarships, skills training and micro-financing, and show society they are perfectly capable human beings.
And then there are the Global Appeals. The first Global Appeal, launched in New Delhi, was signed by world leaders including former US President Jimmy Carter, the Dalai Lama, and Bishop Desmond Tutu. The second Global Appeal, announced in Manila, was endorsed by leaders of people affected by leprosy from 13 countries, including Jose Ramirez Jr. of the United States, who is with us today. This year, I am delighted that leading human rights organizations have joined me in issuing Global Appeal 2008. I thank them for recognizing the importance of this issue, and lending their powerful support. Through such cooperation, I believe we can achieve much.
Finally, I should like to note that 2008 marks the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Let us make this a break-through year for the rights of people affected by leprosy, and for the dignity of all human beings.