VATICAN CITY, JAN. 28, 2005 ( The Holy See stresses that the "mark of infamy" endured by leprosy sufferers must be eliminated if this disease is to be defeated definitively.

This conviction is expressed in the message Cardinal Javier Lozano Barragán, president of the Pontifical Council for Health Care Workers, wrote for the 52nd World Day of Leprosy Sufferers, which will be observed this Sunday.

The cardinal points out that although this day "leads us to celebrate man's dominion over the 'pandemic,' which has terrorized humanity during millennia, it must not be forgotten that it is still present and tragically lethal in at least nine countries."

"But even more deleterious is the persistence of ancestral prejudices in relation to leprosy sufferers, who are the motive of shame or are subjected to absurd discrimination," he adds.

Such attitudes in some areas has led to a lack of results despite the programs of prevention and medical care carried out over 13 years by the World Health Organization, says the message sent to ZENIT today.

Still, such programs have helped cut drastically the incidence of leprosy, or Hansen's disease, and led to the cure of some 13 million people, adds the message.

But until "mark of infamy" associated with the disease is eliminated, "the final struggle for victory over leprosy will still remain" for a long time, the cardinal says.

This is the reason the Pontifical Council for Health Care Workers is involved in supporting "brothers who are still hit by the pandemic" and it feels "intensely close to the social communities in which they are integrated," he continues.

Cardinal Lozano Barragán believes that the challenge to put an end to leprosy is no longer the medicines, which are available, but the on-the-spot presence of health-care facilities and personnel prepared to attend those in need.

"For the total elimination of leprosy the presence of specialized persons is necessary to carry out the necessary bacteriological examinations and the timely clinical diagnosis that identifies the bacteria at the beginning of its presence in a body," he explains.

To achieve this objective, the cardinal appeals for the fraternal solidarity "of the whole ecclesial community and of those who respect life and the inalienable rights of all human beings."

The message concludes by inviting Christians to thank missionaries and volunteers who with "unbreakable faith, continue to witness that in a brother's body disfigured by Hansen's disease, the suffering Christ himself is present."

In 2003, the Church ran 656 centers to care for lepers, down from 678 a year earlier, a sign of the disease's recession. There are 327 centers in Asia, 254 in Africa, 69 in the Americas, four in Europe and two in Oceania.