A Journey toward a New Beginning
Vietnam, India and the Philippines were among the destinations on the goodwill ambassador's itinerary in recent months.
VIETNAM (MARCH 31)
This March found me in Vietnam to mark the 50th anniversary of the founding of Vietnam Maritime University. While there, I used the opportunity to visit a leprosy treatment center in Quacam, about 90 minutes by car from the capital, Hanoi.
I last visited Quacam in 1994. Alongside the center is a colony that is home to around 200 people who have recovered from leprosy and about 100 children. There is also a residential section for the elderly, where I met a 76-year-old woman who had spent the past 52 years in the colony, as well as another elderly woman of 96.
About 50 residents gathered in a hall to greet me. I was struck by how full of life they were, and the general atmosphere of well-being I found there.
The reason for this, I gathered, was the absence of stigma. Stigma existed in the past, but there is almost none today. The elementary school within the leprosy treatment center is also the local village school. Altogether, about 300 children attend. The treatment center also functions as a dermatological hospital. There are about 20 beds for leprosy patients.
I was told that at present there are some 1,200 registered cases of leprosy in Vietnam: 15% have disabilities, and 10% are children.
While in Vietnam, I also had an opportunity to have dinner with Le Tien Thanh, vice minister of Labor, Invalids and Social Affairs. I recalled that on my last visit in 1994, I proposed at a WHO gathering to provide a five-year free supply of MDT all over the world, and this was unanimously accepted.
The vice minister said this has played a huge part in changing people's perceptions of leprosy, and led to the disappearance of stigma toward persons affected by the disease. I was also very pleased to hear from him that social rehabilitation is making progress.
Residents of a leprosy colony in Quacam
INDIA (APRIL 26-28)
The chief purpose of my third visit to India this year was to lay the groundwork for establishing a foundation for the social rehabilitation of persons affected by leprosy, and to meet with senior figures in the Indian business world to explain the foundation's objectives with a view to raising funds.
My other mission was to deliver a message of congratulations to the Indian government and the WHO upon India's achieving the elimination goal at the end of last year.
I first called on the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare to meet with Joint Secretary Rita Teotia and Deputy Director General (Leprosy) Dr. G.P.S. Dhillon. Both told me that the fight was not over, and that India's next goal was subnational elimination. I told them that I hoped to visit the nine states/Union Territories yet to reach the elimination target and encourage them in their efforts.
To discuss the proposed foundation, I called on both the Confederation of Indian Industries and the PHD Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Also, through the good offices of Dr. Rajiv Kumar, the director of the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations, one evening I was able to meet up with leading figures in the worlds of business, academia, the media and other fields.
Everyone present showed a good grasp of the issues surrounding leprosy, and expressed their strong support for stamping out discrimination and creating opportunities for social rehabilitation. They also gave their backing to the foundation idea.
Concerning funding, The Nippon Foundation will donate an initial $10 million but I am hoping that between them India's industrialists will be making a similar contribution. I am now working through an Indian law firm on setting up the foundation, and hope it will begin operations within the next six months.
|Yohei Sasakawa gives a speech during his visit to Culion. Beyond him is a monument marking the landing site of the first leprosy patients brought to the island on May 27, 1906.
PHILIPPINES (MAY 5-8)
In early May I was delighted to take part in a remarkable event: the centenary celebration of the founding of a leprosy colony on Culion island in the Philippines.
Culion lies about 200 kilometers southwest of Manila, and at one time was the world's largest leprosy colony.
The first batch of leprosy patients arrived on Culion on May 27, 1906, where they were met by an American doctor, four French sisters of St. Paul de Chartres and a Spanish Jesuit priest. This was the subject of a poignant reenactment that I attended on May 6. The “lepers” were all played by persons affected by leprosy living on Culion.
|Dr. Arturo Cunanan: a Culion native and main organizer of the centennial celebrations
|Posing with sisters of the Order of St. Paul de Chartres.
This was followed by the unveiling of a marker at the landing site, and the release of 100 doves and balloons. Many speeches were made, and in my own remarks I heralded Culion's transformation from an island of despair to a place of hope.
From being an isolated leprosy colony 100 years ago, Culion achieved status as a municipality in 1995, and is now seeking to makeits way like any other community. Many living on the island today are the children and grandchildren of leprosy patients and of the doctors and staff of the original sanatorium facilities.
I believe Culion sends a very positive message to the world on how to overcome deep-rooted stigma and discrimination.
Following the reenactment, I took part in the formal opening of the Culion Museum & Archives. Funded by the Sasakawa Memorial Health Foundation, this is a beautifully curated project that takes visitors through Culion's history as a leprosy colony and provides an excellent introduction to the topic. In the words of Dr. Arturo Cunanan, head of the Culion Leprosy Control & Rehabilitation Program and himself born on Culion, “The museum is a repository of our heritage. We open it with pride.”
Toward the end of the day, I attended a service of rememberance at Culion's cemetery for leprosy patients. Even in death, persons with leprosy were segregated.
Noting how far Culion has come since 1906, Rommel Howard Iway, the president of the St. Ignatius College Alumni Association, referred to those buried there as “sacrificial lambs.”
Describing Culion today as a “paradise,” he added, “If they are looking at us from heaven, they might be saying, ‘This is our gift to you from us.’”
SWITZERLAND (MAY 24-26)
Toward the end of May, I was in Geneva for the World Health Assembly, an event overshadowed by the sudden and untimely death of WHO Director-General Dr. J. W. Lee (see page 5).
I had the opportunity to meet with health ministers from India, Madagascar, Tanzania, Angola, Myanmar and Nepal, as well as health ministry representatives from Indonesia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Mozambique.
I also had the pleasure of attending the award ceremony for the 22nd Sasakawa Health Prize, which was presented to the International Leprosy Union and accepted by its president, Dr. S.D. Gokhale, for its services to leprosy work.
●The Philippines achieved elimination of leprosy as a public health problem in 1998.