Neglected tropical diseases

Religious communities unite to address leprosy-associated stigmatization and discrimination

International symposium calls for further research and preservation of know-how acquired over decades

24 June 2016 | Vatican City | New Delhi | Geneva −− An international symposium on leprosy has heard that erroneous customs and beliefs throughout history ostracized people who suffered from the disease and compounded stigmatization and discrimination.

©Emily Conron

Today, societal approaches to leprosy have changed. Attitudes are now increasingly inclusive as new cases of leprosy, numbers of which have fallen dramatically over the decades, can be completely cured with safe, efficacious medicines available free of charge to all worldwide.

“We discussed prevention, treatment, assistance and research, and reviewed the success of current strategic approaches at global level” said Dr Erwin Cooreman, Team Leader, WHO Global Leprosy Programme. “Discussions with representatives of the world’s major religions also provided an opportunity to highlight the important role religious communities can play in defeating leprosy.”

The world’s major faiths can contribute to address the social dimension of leprosy control, support positive attitudes and promote a more humane, accommodating approach, as highlighted in WHO’s Global Leprosy Strategy 2016–2020. Many affected countries have moved to change laws that historically have discriminated against people affected by leprosy in many ways.

The symposium described the good practices to be followed through an active understanding and involvement of communities and heard testimonies from people affected by leprosy from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, India and Indonesia, as well as those from China, Colombia, Ghana, Japan, the Philippines and the Republic of Korea.

Three projects for future implementation, which will be further supported and showcased as models of good practice, were discussed. The projects relate to contact tracing combined with prophylactic treatment (Lao People’s Democratic Republic), active case-finding in a low-burden setting (Mali) and integration (Brazil).

Recommendations of the symposium included: to conduct further research into new medicines, diagnostics and vaccines to accelerate reduction of the leprosy burden; to tackle the risk of losing the know-how acquired over decades; to create follow-up mechanisms to monitor actions by States for removing all forms of discrimination and discriminatory or derogatory language (the terminology of Hansen’s Disease to increasingly replace leprosy).

The symposium Towards holistic care for people with Hansen’s disease, respectful of their dignity held in the Vatican City on 9–10 June 2016 was organized by the Pontifical Council for Health Care Workers, the Good Samaritan Foundation and The Nippon Foundation in collaboration with the ‘Fondation Raoul Follereau’, the Sovereign Order of Malta and the Sasakawa Memorial Health Foundation.

Participants included representatives from national leprosy programmes, national and international nongovernmental organizations, international organizations, community-based organizations, leaders of religious communities (Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Judaism and Buddhism) and people affected by leprosy.

Ashok Moloo
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