WHO National Leprosy Programme Managers’ Meeting in the Western Pacific Region
I have been involved in the fight against leprosy for some time, but the advancement made during the past few decades has been impressive. When the WHO set a target in 1991 to decrease the number of patients to less than 1 case per 10,000 population, various countries developed detailed plans and worked relentlessly to attain their elimination targets. Their efforts were rewarded, for countries around the world made dramatic progress. Now, Brazil is the last remaining country to reach elimination and she too is well on her way to achieving the target, possibly by 2013. I would like to commend the program managers and various stakeholders here today for your efforts and dedication in making this amazing feat possible.
Now that majority of countries are in post-elimination, however, I believe many are experiencing an even harder challenge. The more effort we put in to reaching a milestone, the more our motivation and energy tend to weaken once we achieve it—even if this achievement is only midway to our final goal. This is true of everything, and leprosy is no different. I have seen this for myself in countries around the world. Once the elimination target has been achieved, efforts ease off, budgets and personnel are reduced and leprosy becomes less of a priority.
I can understand to an extent that it is inevitable that governments will replace old policies with new ones and that these new policies will be formulated in accordance to newly set priorities.
But just because leprosy is no longer a relatively priority disease, it does not mean that the importance of the leprosy program itself has lessened. I believe the holding of this meeting is precisely the manifestation of this idea.
This meeting shall be an opportunity for you to utilize your vast experience and tax your ingenuity. If we can become even more strategic and find effective ways to tackle the various problems encircling leprosy, I believe that we will be able to overcome the limitations of shrinking resources and make steady progress in reducing the number of new patients. Of course, this will not be an easy task, but I am positive that great ideas and approaches will come about if each of us give it our all.
Let me explain why I remain thoroughly committed to leprosy control, even after elimination. Although the main goals of leprosy control are about interrupting transmission, identifying and treating patients and preventing development of deformities, it serves another purpose. As you all know, the problem of leprosy is a complicated entanglement of difficult issues. For many centuries, people affected have suffered from the illness as well as the stigma and discrimination that it entails. Over the years, I met many patients who were hesitant to receive treatment because they feared it would ostracize them from their communities. And despite our efforts in trying to end the stigma and discrimination against people affected by leprosy worldwide, there are still many places in the world where once you are affected, you are forever dislocated from your community both socially and economically.
Although the stigma attached to the disease is still far from disappearing, taking measures to decrease new patient numbers and prevent disability with early diagnosis and treatment are contributing to reduce the incidence of discrimination.
In other words, your works as program managers are contributing toward solving both the medical and social problems concerning leprosy. I give my utmost respect for your accomplishments thus far and I hope you will continue your meaningful work with the same unwavering commitment.
We have gathered here today to fight toward a common purpose. With your efforts and commitment, I truly hope that we will be able to reduce the suffering caused by the disease and the discrimination that it entails.
Lastly, I would like to thank the WHO and Culion Foundation for their efforts. Without them, this meeting would not have been possible. To the participants, I hope you will use this time to the fullest to share and learn from one another so that you may take the valuable ideas and insights that you gain here and share them with your colleagues back home.
Thank you for your attention.