VATICAN CITY, JAN. 29, 2010 (Zenit.org).- Here is a translation of the message released today by the president of the Pontifical Council for Health Care Ministry, Archbishop Zygmunt Zimowski, on the occasion of the 57th World Day of Leprosy Sufferers, which will be observed Sunday, Jan. 31.
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To the Presidents of the Episcopal Conferences,
To Bishops in Charge of Health Pastoral Care,
The “World Day of Leprosy Suffers,” instituted in the first half of the 50s, thanks to the commitment of French writer Raoul Follereau, is not only a day of reflection on the victims of this devastating disease but above all a day of solidarity with brothers and sisters that are affected by it.
Leprosy, known also as Hansen’s disease, in reality continues infecting annually hundreds of thousands of people worldwide. According to the most recent data published by the World Health Organization, in 2009 more than 210,000 new cases were recorded. Moreover, innumerable in fact are the people who have been infected but of whom no census has been taken or are still deprived of access to medical care.
From a statistical point of view, the countries that are most affected are in Asia, in South America and in Africa. India has the greatest number of affected people, followed by Brazil. Numerous cases are recorded also in Angola, Bangladesh, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Indonesia, Madagascar, Mozambique, Nepal and Tanzania.
An “ancient” illness is Hansen’s disease, but, because of this, no less devastating physically and also morally. In all ages and civilizations, the fate of the leprosy sufferer is marginalization, being deprived of any type of social life, condemned to seeing his body disintegrate until death comes.
Unfortunately, still today, those who suffer from it or are cured, bear the unmistakable mutilations, and are too often condemned to loneliness and fear, to being almost invisible in the eyes of others, of society, of public opinion. In countries that are more economically advanced it seems that this disease has been forgotten, as well as the people affected by it.
When it is remembered, when the word leprosy is expressed, different feelings are aroused: Incredulity on the part of those who wonder how this pathology can still continue to exist, fear and repugnance and a no less grave display of indifference but also the mercy and love that result from the attentive and merciful attitude of Jesus towards these sufferers (Mark 1:40-42).
Follereau’s commitment, the numerous endeavors of institutions, organizations of an ecclesial nature and/or non-governmental entities that fight against leprosy, the exceptional work of Saint Damian de Veuster and of so many other Saints and men of good will have helped to overcome negative attitudes to leprosy sufferers, promoting their dignity and rights and at the same time more universal love of neighbor.
Today there is effective care against leprosy but, despite this, Hansen’s disease continues to spread. Among the factors that foster its perpetuation is, certainly, individual and collective indigence, which too often implies lack of hygiene, the presence of debilitating illnesses, insufficient nutrition if not chronic hunger and the lack of timely access to medical care. Persisting in the social realm at the same time are fears that, in general generated by ignorance, add a heavy stigma to the already terrible burden that leprosy entails when it has already been cured.
Hence I appeal to the international community and to the authorities of every State, inviting them to develop and reinforce the necessary strategies to fight against leprosy, making them more effective and capillary above all where the number of new cases is still high. All this without neglecting campaigns of education and sensitization capable of helping persons affected and their families to come out of exclusion and obtain the necessary care.
At the same time my heartfelt thanks go to the local Churches and the different religious realities, whether or not missionary, for all that so many of them have done, consecrated men and women, lay men and women; for all good that the World Health Organization has also done with its considerable commitment to eradicate this and other “forgotten” diseases, the anti-leprosy associations and NGOs, as well as the numerous volunteers and all persons of good will who, with their commitment marked by love for our brothers and sisters affected by this disease, are dedicated to their care in an integral way, restoring their dignity, joy and pride of being treated as human beings, so that they can safeguard or, according to the case, take up against their just place in society.
May Mary Salus Infirmorum sustain the sick in the difficult struggle against suffering and the penury caused by the disease and be able to tear the veil of silence with an always growing number of acts of true solidarity in favor of persons affected by leprosy.
[Translation by ZENIT]