Messages for World Leprosy Day 2021

From Yohei Sasakawa, WHO Goodwill Ambassador for Leprosy Elimination

Over the past year, the headlines have been dominated by COVID-19. It is easy to overlook other diseases, especially a disease such as leprosy that many people think is a disease of the past.

But leprosy requires our attention. There are still some 200,000 new cases diagnosed worldwide each year. Millions of people are living with some form of disability as a result of leprosy.

Both the label “leprosy” and the disability that can result if this age-old disease goes untreated can lead to social exclusion. Persons affected by leprosy continue to face discrimination, reinforced in some countries by outdated laws that make leprosy grounds for divorce, prevent people with the disease from participating in public life or place other restrictions on their activities.

As WHO Goodwill Ambassador for Leprosy Elimination, I have seen for myself how leprosy has marginalized individuals. Women and children are particularly vulnerable to the social and economic consequences of the disease.

Overcoming leprosy involves more than early diagnosis and prompt treatment. It also requires changing mindsets so that leprosy is no longer a source of shame or prejudice. We must remove all barriers in the way of those seeking medical care. We must eliminate the obstacles that prevent affected individuals and their families from living in dignity and enjoying all their basic human rights as full members of society.

I often talk about leprosy in terms of a motorcycle. The front wheel represents curing the disease and the rear wheel symbolizes ending discrimination. Only when both wheels are turning at the same time will we make progress toward our destination of a leprosy-free world.

As I survey the road ahead, I am confident we are moving in the right direction: the WHO’s Global Leprosy Strategy for 2021-2030 will generate renewed momentum; organizations of persons affected by leprosy are becoming more influential, and their calls for change more powerful; and the UN Special Rapporteur on leprosy is working tirelessly to see that principles and guidelines on the elimination of discrimination against persons affected by leprosy and their family members are fully implemented.

I believe we will achieve a world without leprosy one day. But along the way, we need to realize an inclusive society in which everyone has access to quality treatment and services, and a diagnosis of leprosy no longer comes with a possibility of devastating physical, social, economic or psychological consequences.

Compared to other diseases, leprosy may only affect a small number of people, but we are all responsible for building an inclusive world.

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