This program has been organized by the Asia Program and co-sponsored by the Africa Program, and the Global Health Initiative.

Leprosy is not highly contagious and is curable, said Yohei Sasakawa, chairman of the Nippon Foundation and World Health Organization (WHO) Goodwill Ambassador for Leprosy Elimination in a March 6 Asia Program event co-sponsored by the Africa Program and the Global Health Initiative. Also, noted Sasakawa, most people are immune to the disease. The introduction of multidrug therapy (MDT) in the 1980s cured approximately 16 million people, overcoming the medical—but not the social—challenge of the disease. Today, more than 250,000 cases are diagnosed annually. Sadly, fear and misperception subject the inflicted to exclusion and prejudice. Overall, there are 100 million such people worldwide. (This figure includes the families of the sufferers as well as those with the disease.) Sasakawa spoke passionately of the need to restore the human rights of those inflicted by leprosy by "counter(ing) ignorance and prejudice," and "condemn(ing) the use of stigmatizing terminology."

In Sasakawa's view, the ostracism of people with the disease and even of their families leads to their "forcible isolation in remote locations, cut off from family, friends and the community." In his visit to Indonesia a few years ago, Sasakawa met an 85-year old leprosy sanitorium patient who was rejected by her family at the age of twelve. He also mentioned that in his native country, Japan, the Leprosy Prevention Law had forced leprosy patients to remain "incarcerated" in leprosy sanitoria. These cases demonstrate how fear and ignorance of the disease can deny leprosy victims their basic human rights to education, employment and marriage.

Through Sasakawa's efforts as chairman of the Nippon Foundation, the organization funded the free, global distribution of MDT from 1995 to 1999. Funding was then taken over by the Novartis Foundation for Sustainable Development in 2000. This initiative was further supported by the WHO, which defined leprosy elimination as its principal goal in 2005, aiming to reduce leprosy's prevalence to less than one case per 10,000. Collaborating with national, international and non-governmental organizations, WHO succeeded in eliminating leprosy (by this definition) in all but four countries—Brazil, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mozambique, and Nepal.

As WHO Goodwill Ambassador, Sasakawa has targeted policymakers, opinion leaders and leading human rights organizations to address the social stigma of leprosy. In 2003, he persuaded the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner to support three non-binding resolutions to end stigma and discrimination against leprosy-affected people and their families. He also initiated a high-profile campaign of "Global Appeals" to "sensitize" society in cities like Delhi, Manila, and London. This campaign was backed by former Nobel Peace Prize winners (Jimmy Carter, Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama), Amnesty International, and the International Save the Children Alliance. The establishment of the Sasakawa-India Leprosy Foundation aimed to create opportunities for "education, skills training, and access to microfinance," entitling leprosy victims to fair and equal opportunities.

In closing, Sasakawa hoped that this year, the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, would yield a breakthrough in advocating fair treatment and acceptance for those affected by leprosy: "We must treat others as we would hope to be treated ourselves. After all, we—each and every one of us—have an equal right to live on this Earth."

Drafted by Susan L. Levenstein, Asia Program Assistant
Edited by Mark Mohr, Asia Program Associate
Robert M. Hathaway, Director, Asia Program, Ph: (202) 691-4020