International Leprosy Summit: “Overcoming the Remaining Challenges”

Bangkok, Thailand

I would like to first of all express my deep appreciation to everyone at the Ministry of Public Health of the Royal Thai Government for kindly hosting this summit. I also wish to convey my deep gratitude to Dr. Samlee Plianbangchang, WHO Regional Director for South-East Asia; your long-standing commitment toward leprosy has enabled us to realize this International Leprosy Summit, here in Thailand.

Our fight against leprosy has never been an easy battle. However, over the last three decades we have witnessed tremendous progress on the medical front. The development of MDT, in the 1980s, made it possible to effectively cure leprosy; the resolution made at the World Health Assembly in 1991—to reduce the prevalence of leprosy below one case per 10,000 people—brought together various stakeholders including governments and NGOs from around the world to decrease the global disease burden due to leprosy. With all of your efforts, over the past 20 years, an estimated 16 million people have been cured worldwide; furthermore, integration of leprosy into the general health services has greatly enhanced the coverage of leprosy services.

It is evident that great effort and dedication went in to reach the WHO target. Hence, one by one, as countries achieved elimination, a sense of satisfaction grew among stakeholders—myself included; and although achieving elimination was merely a milestone and not an end in itself, many of us became enmeshed in a sense of complacency. It might be even safe to say that many of us lost sight of the ultimate goal we had initially set out for; that of reaching out to the last affected person to realize a world without leprosy and its consequences.

What is more, the remaining challenges that we are facing today are becoming increasingly more difficult and complex. I have been getting a clear impression of this in my visits to various countries. The target populations are living in difficult to reach areas such as urban slums, border areas and ethnic minority areas. Moreover, available resources in each country have declined, compared to the time prior to achieving elimination.

Among the health ministers whom I met at the World Health Assembly in Geneva this past May, there were some who spoke of the hardships of achieving real progress amidst increasingly difficult circumstances. In recent years, we have been seeing signs of this in major endemic countries, as many of their annual new case detection rates have been either static or showing increases.

In order to stop this trend, it is vital that we take immediate action upon the hard to reach endemic populations. Reason being, the longer it takes to detect and treat patients, the higher the risk that they will suffer from irreversible physical disabilities, which is still a major cause for stigma and discrimination today.

I shared my sense of alarm with Dr. Samlee Plianbangchang and various health ministers and we reached an understanding that a meeting at the earliest will be necessary to enable governments and all supporting stakeholders to acknowledge the challenges at hand and review our common course of action. This is what led to our holding this summit here today.

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen;

This summit will be the opportunity for participating governments to reaffirm your strong determination to achieve a leprosy free world. Reinforcing your political commitments through the adoption of the Bangkok Declaration will serve as the vital step to that end.

The rest of us stakeholders must also reaffirm our determination and do our part to help drive their political commitments forward. By this, I mean contributing each of our own unique resources such as expertise, knowledge, experiences, human networks and funds. Thereupon, The Nippon Foundation has decided to commit 20 million US dollars for the next 5 years, for this cause. This commitment will support the initiatives of various stakeholders, continue to support and strengthen the Global Leprosy Program at WHO which has been reinforced under the leadership of Dr. Samlee Plianbangchang, and make it possible to respond to the recommendations that will be adopted at the end of this summit.

The fight against leprosy is not over.

And I am determined to devote the rest of my life to win this fight.

Let us make this summit the opportunity for participating governments and all supporting stakeholders to come together and walk hand in hand to achieve a leprosy free world.

Thank you.