Leprosy elimination

Obituary: Professor Stefaan Pattyn

(17 March 2008): WHO has learnt with regret of the recent death of Professor Stefaan R. Pattyn, of the University of Antwerp and Institute of Tropical Medicine. Stefaan was a key player in the development of multidrug therapy (MDT) for the treatment of leprosy, first recommended by WHO in 1981. Since then, this combined drug regimen has revolutionised the treatment of the disease and made it possible to envisage, for the first time in human history, not only its elimination but its eventual eradication.

Despite the acknowledged effectiveness of standard MDT, Stefaan spent many years looking tirelessly for shorter duration, more effective and more patient friendly MDT regimens, examining various alternative combination regimens in the 1980s and 1990s. One important study he contributed to in 1988 concluded that the efficacy of short-course rifampicin containing therapeutic regimens can be evaluated by observing the occurrence of early relapses.

Stefaan was a tireless scientist and a field epidemiologist of the highest calibre, with a passionate interest in all public health issues. Apart from his constant enthusiasm to see leprosy eliminated as a public health problem, he was one the first scientists to investigate HIV and Ebola epidemics in Central Africa (together with Peter Piot, who is now leading UNAIDS).

Professor Pattyn was also an active and influential member of the leprosy board in the Novartis Foundation, and his dream of a world without leprosy helped pave the way towards the decision, taken by Novartis in 1999, to donate MDT free of charge for all leprosy patients. That this donation still remains in place, and only a handful of countries have yet to reach elimination, is a lasting testimony to a great scientist and visionary. He will be sadly missed by his friends and colleagues in WHO and the wider scientific community.