Global Leprosy Strategy Launch, 20 April 2016, New Delhi, India

Speech of Dr Poonam Khetrapal Singh, Regional Director, WHO South-East Asia Region

Excellencies, distinguished guests, ladies and gentleman,

It is my pleasure to be here to launch the Global Leprosy Strategy. Through several rounds of iterative discussions, in November last year, the leprosy programme managers finalized and adopted a realistic global leprosy strategy with a clear vision of a world free of leprosy.

Of the 213 899 (two hundred thirteen thousand eight hundred ninety nine) leprosy cases reported in 2014, 94% came from just 13 countries. These countries are Bangladesh, Brazil, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, India, Indonesia, Madagascar, Myanmar, Nepal, Nigeria, the Philippines, Sri Lanka and Tanzania.

It is, therefore, appropriate that we are launching this important strategy here in India because it is still the country contributing the largest number of leprosy cases. India accounts for two-thirds of the new leprosy cases detected annually. And of the six WHO Regions, WHO South-East Asia has the highest global burden. Ten of the Region’s eleven countries continue to report cases.

The numbers are daunting.

However, that should not deter us from renewed efforts to address the unfinished agenda of leprosy control and prevention. The world has made progress, tremendous progress in fact.

In 1985, 5.2 million people globally suffered the disease. By 1995 that number was reduced to 805 000. The widespread and free availability of multidrug therapy or MDT, along with effective global collaboration and steadfast commitment, meant that leprosy was eliminated as a public health problem at the global level in the year 2000.

Since then, a series of five-year plans have guided efforts to eliminate the disease in areas where it remains. The Final Push Strategy for the Elimination of Leprosy, implemented between 2000 and 2005, focused on MDT and passive case detection. The Global Strategy for Further Reducing the Leprosy Burden lasting from 2006 to 2010, consolidated the principles of timely detection and effective chemotherapy in the context of integrated services. And the Enhanced Global Strategy for Further Reducing the Disease Burden due to Leprosy, which guided efforts between 2011 and 2015, focused on reducing leprosy-related disabilities.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

The new Global Leprosy Strategy, which I am honored to launch here today, aims at lightening this burden and accelerating the progress towards our goal of a leprosy-free world.

The strategy’s targets are clear and unambiguous. By 2020 it aims to achieve the following:

First, to reduce the number of children diagnosed with leprosy and physical deformities to zero. Leprosy continues to afflict children, and all-too-often leaves them with lifelong disabilities.

Second, to reduce the rate of newly-diagnosed leprosy cases with visible deformities to less than one per million.

And third, to ensure that all legislation that allows for discrimination on the basis of leprosy is rectified.

The strategy is guided by the principles of accountability and inclusivity. More importantly, the strategy lays out clear actions for effective implementation. A strategy can only be as good as its implementation.

Clear actions for effective implementation require developing country-specific action plans to control and prevent leprosy. Such plans must be appropriate to the local epidemiological situations, and address the social, economic and political factors that underpin the barriers that foster environment for leprosy to continue to thrive.

Ensuring accountability means strengthening monitoring and evaluation in order to measure progress and achieve targets. The performance indicators built-in the strategy must be used by countries to closely monitor the effectiveness of their efforts and to make adjustments accordingly.

And promoting inclusion means establishing and strengthening partnerships with all stakeholders, including persons or communities affected by the disease.

Despite many decades of advocacy, leprosy patients still continue to be discriminated against. This often pushes leprosy underground and hampers efforts to identify patients and, even if identified, for continuing appropriate treatment. Several leprosy-affected countries still have legislation in place that allows discrimination against those suffering the disease. But even where discrimination is not codified, social stigma remains. Stigma, therefore, impedes leprosy’s early detection, particularly in children, and thereby increases disabilities. Timely diagnosis and treatment among children is essential to halting leprosy-related disabilities.

By impeding detection and treatment, stigma also facilitates transmission among vulnerable groups, including migrant populations, displaced communities, the very poor and hard-to-reach. More often than not, these vulnerable groups also lack access to essential services, making the expansion of health coverage critical. Indeed, the clinical resources we have for treating leprosy are incredibly effective; the only barrier we have is making sure that those needing treatment can access it in time. Combatting stigma, overturning the taboo on active case-finding, and expanding access to services are all emphasized in the new strategy and I have no doubt they will prove vital to our efforts.

WHO stands committed to the cause of a world free of leprosy. Leprosy, among other neglected tropical diseases, is important for the SEA Region and, therefore, is included in my Flagship Priorities to ensure it receives the highest attention, as well as significant additional funding.

We are highly appreciative of The Nippon Foundation through the Sasakawa Memorial Health Foundation, who remains committed to continuing financial support. And the strong and unwavering support of members of the International Federation of Anti-Leprosy Associations is not only welcome but is highly appreciated.

Most importantly, we must note the increased financial contributions by national governments, particularly in the countries with the highest burdens. These contributions and commitments are the most effective and sustainable way to support leprosy control in areas where it is most required.

Excellencies, ladies and gentleman,

I hereby launch the Global Leprosy Strategy and let us, together, reinvigorate our commitments and our efforts towards a leprosy-free world and may our quest prove a resounding success.

Thank you for your kind attention.