Programme Manager’s Meeting on Leprosy Elimination in the Eastern Mediterranean Region

Rabat, Morocco

To the program managers of the health ministries of participating countries and to our partners at the WHO, I would like to once again convey my deep appreciation for your efforts and dedication in this global fight against leprosy. 

I have been involved in the fight against leprosy for more than 40 years, but the advancement made during the past 20 years has been remarkable. The 1991 resolution by the WHO set a goal of eliminating leprosy as a public health problem by reducing the prevalence of the disease to less than 1 case per 10,000 cases, and various countries developed detailed plans and worked relentlessly to attain their elimination targets in cooperation with other stakeholders.

The substantial contribution made by the WHO Regional Office for the Eastern Mediterranean during this time goes without saying. Here in Morocco, I have been informed that after 1980, leprosy patients were able to receive treatment in local clinics, instead of having to go to a designated hospital. At the same time, a home visitation program was introduced to detect new cases among family members of patients and their communities. I would like to congratulate the Ministry of Health of the Government of Morocco for these new policies that have not only reduced patient numbers but also led to early diagnosis and treatment. And I would like to convey my appreciation to the dedicated program managers for their strong commitment to people affected by leprosy and their families.

Successful cases such as this can be found in probably every country that has been fighting leprosy. These efforts are what enabled countries around the world to make dramatic progress. And now, Brazil is the last remaining country that has yet to reach this milestone.

However, I have noticed that even in the most dedicated countries, complacency can set in once registered numbers of patients decline. Efforts ease off, budgets and personnel are reduced, and leprosy becomes less of a priority in comparison to other major diseases. I can well understand how this can happen. But my grave concern is that it will mislead the people involved in the fight against leprosy to think that the fundamental importance of why leprosy must be eliminated has also been undermined.

It is vital that we continue our efforts to identify and treat new cases in a timely manner because of the degree of burden that patients must shoulder, in addition to their painful fight against the disease itself. The main goal of leprosy control is to interrupt transmission, identify and treat patients, and prevent development of deformities, but another key aim is to fight against discrimination.

As you all know, the problem of leprosy is a complicated entanglement of various issues. For many centuries, people affected by the disease have suffered from the illness as well as the stigma and discrimination that it entails. Over the years, I have met countless people who were hesitant to come forward because they feared it would ostracize them from their communities. And despite many efforts aimed at ending the stigma and discrimination, there are still many places in the world where a person, once affected by the disease, is forever dislocated from their community, both socially and economically. 

Although the stigma attached to the disease is still far from disappearing, stepped-up efforts to diagnose and treat new cases promptly and prevent disabilities are contributing to reducing the cases of discrimination.

In other words, your work as program managers is contributing toward solving both the medical and social problems concerning leprosy. I have the utmost respect for your accomplishments made so far and hope you will continue your work with the same unwavering resolve.

We have gathered here today to reaffirm our responsibilities to achieve a common cause. 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 our partners at the WHO for their tremendous efforts. To the participants, I hope you will use this time to the fullest to discuss issues and learn from one another so that you may take home valuable ideas and insights and share them with your colleagues.

Thank you.