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WHO and Novartis deliver free leprosy treatment for all patients worldwide

All leprosy patients in the world will continue to benefit from free medicines under an agreement signed today by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the pharmaceutical company, Novartis AG. This extends the current agreement until the end of 2010 and is valued at between US$ 14.5 and US$ 24.5 million depending on the number of cases detected over the next five years. The first phase of the donation (2000 to 2005) has led to the cure of about 4 million patients and was worth US$ 40 million.

The lower amount of drugs supplied under the new agreement is due to the impressive progress being made in the struggle to eliminate leprosy as a public health problem in all countries. As of the beginning of 2005, the number of cases of leprosy worldwide was 286 000, a drop of 38% from the beginning of 2004. The number of new cases detected during 2004 was also substantially lower (down 21% than in the previous year, providing further evidence that the backlog of previously undetected cases has finally been reached and treated.

The rapid progress in recent years is largely due to improved coverage of leprosy services, with the integration of leprosy treatment into the general health system. This has made multidrug therapy (MDT), donated by Novartis and made available by WHO free to all disease endemic countries, easily accessible even in the most remote areas and amongst underserved communities most affected by the disease. Since 1985, more than 14 million patients have been cured of leprosy through the use of multidrug therapy (MDT). The greatest credit for the progress rests with committed governments, and the staff of national programmes.

"The excellent news is that millions of people have been cured of leprosy and saved from a life of disability and stigma through the use of this simple, effective treatment," said Dr LEE Jong-wook, WHO Director-General. "This success story demonstrates once again the value of integrating leprosy services into the public health system, and making MDT treatment truly available to everyone. WHO will work closely with all member states to sustain this process of integration, and maintain the crucial political commitment required, in the face of a rapidly disappearing disease."

“We are reaffirming our commitment to helping patients with leprosy and helping to eliminate this disease as a public health problem. The progress made to date in this partnership is evidence of the benefits of this public-private partnership, and gives us motivation in our fight against other endemic diseases in the developing world,” said Dr. Daniel Vasella, Chairman and CEO of Novartis.

Mr Yohei Sasakawa, WHO Goodwill Ambassador for the elimination of leprosy and Chairman of The Nippon Foundation, a long-standing partner of WHO in its fight against the disease, called for renewed cooperation between all concerned stakeholders.

“The elimination of leprosy as a public health problem is a milestone along the way to fundamentally eradicating both the disease and the social stigma that for so long has accompanied it,” he said.

WHO will continue to provide support to the remaining endemic countries to ensure that the goal of elimination is achieved at the national level, as well as to other countries, in order to assist them eliminate the disease at the sub-national level.

WHO will provide support to all countries where people with leprosy are being treated, in order to reduce the number of cases and the impact of this potentially devastating, but easily curable disease.

Leprosy is a chronic disease caused by a bacterium, Mycobacterium leprae. It is not highly infectious but can cause severe and permanent damage to the skin, nerves, limbs and eyes if untreated. Treatment is simple, effective and free in all countries.

Leprosy remains a public health problem in nine countries: six in Africa (Angola, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Madagascar, Mozambique, and the United Republic of Tanzania); two in South-East Asia (India, Nepal), and one in the Americas (Brazil).

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For more information contact:

Mr Iain Simpson
Communications Officer
Director-General’s Office - WHO
Telephone: +41 22 791 3215
Mobile phone: +41 79 475 5534
E-mail: simpsoni@who.int