WHO Global Program Managers Meeting on Leprosy

New Delhi, India

Allow me to begin by offering my greetings to all participants, who have traveled here from around the world. I would also like to express my appreciation to SEARO Regional Director Dr. Samlee for his leadership, and to the Global Leprosy Program’s Dr. Pannikar and Dr. Htoon for their work in achieving the expert consensus on which the new five-year strategy is based.

All of us here today have a common vision. We all look toward a world without leprosy.

Countries must deal with many different public health problems. In the face of these competing challenges, we must work harder than ever to ensure that the commitment to leprosy remains.

This is about more than just eradicating the disease. It is also about rooting out the stigma attached to leprosy, and the social discrimination it breeds.

In times past, some countries forcibly isolated people with the disease. On entering sanatoriums, patients were urged to change their names to protect their families. This is just one example of the human rights violations that people affected by leprosy routinely endured.

Thanks to medical advances, leprosy is now curable with MDT. Isolation policies are now history. Yet lingering social prejudice creates invisible walls that still isolate people affected by the disease.

This prejudice is deep-rooted. Contempt for people affected by leprosy is woven into the fabric of many cultures. Most languages have words that vilify people with leprosy. These words are still used today. Meanwhile, people diagnosed with leprosy, and even their loved ones, still face difficulty in obtaining education, finding work and getting married.

Therefore, the WHO is to be commended for making not just the medical issues, but also the social issues a big part of its new strategy. I also welcome the way that the views of people affected by the disease are also being taken into account.

In our work, we deal with many statistics. But behind every statistic are people whose encounter with leprosy affects not only their health but also their dignity as human beings. When we think of this, we realize that we cannot afford to ease up on our efforts.

I often use the image of a motorcycle when talking about leprosy. The front wheel stands for the medical fight, and the back wheel for the fight against discrimination. Both wheels must be the same size and properly balanced if the motorcycle is to run smoothly. In other words, only when both the medical and social issues are being addressed can we say we are moving toward a truly leprosy-free world. I am thus delighted that this is reflected in the new WHO strategy.

As the WHO Goodwill Ambassador, I see myself as having two main roles. The first is to spread the three messages. That leprosy is curable. That treatment is available free of charge around the world. And that social discrimination has no place. In this task, the cooperation of the media is essential. My other role is to meet with political leaders and urge them to take leprosy seriously.

A leprosy-free world is a world free not only of leprosy but of the stigma and discrimination it causes. I ask all of you to keep the motorcycle moving in the right direction until our vision is realized.