Geneva-based WHO announced May 16 that the global elimination of leprosy has been virtually achieved.
“Together, we can take pride in this victory in reducing to very low levels one of the most dreadful diseases to have ever afflicted mankind,” boasted WHO director general, Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland.
Not so fast, said missionaries serving in Ghana and Uganda, who were contacted by the international agency Fides. They contended that the director general´s statement amounted to dangerous “triumphalism.”
Father Giorgio Abram, an Italian Franciscan who has cared for lepers in Ghana for 25 years, warned that it is not enough to look at statistics. WHO´s claim could encourage governments to cut back their commitment in the fight to eliminate leprosy forever, he said.
“Organizations such as WHO are massive bureaucratic bodies that have little or no direct contact with the sick; they work with statistics,” Father Abram told Fides.
The priest added that, in its statement, WHO mentions “only major sponsors, not the associations that sensitize public opinion in developed countries, or the actual operators in the field. It is to them that we owe successes achieved in curing leprosy. But the total elimination of the disease will only be achieved by a general improvement of the living conditions of the people at risk.”
He added: “WHO´s triumphalism could push this aspect of the problem into the background.”
Sister Fernanda Pellizer, an Italian Comboni nun who has cared for lepers for 10 years in Uganda, agrees that “progress has been made in treating leprosy, but we must not lower our defenses.”
“In Uganda,” she said, “we set up a [one-on-one] program of control involving the whole population, from infants to old folks. We have obtained good results, but we must always be on the watch.”
The Catholic Church is at the fore in this field, with 823 leprosy centers worldwide. In many countries, these are the only structures providing lepers the treatment they deserve.
An additional aspect of leprosy treatment is rehabilitation of the disabled who are cured but remain with some deformity, which makes it difficult for them to find work. In countries such as Ethiopia, there are millions of people in this condition. In this case, missionaries are also indispensable. In many regions, missionaries help cured leprosy patients to set up cooperatives.
The Raoul Follereau Italian Association, with years of experience in this field, also said that the disease has yet to be conquered.
Moreover, it disagreed with WHO´s affirmation that medication is available to most of the world population; the association recalled the situation of 10 million disabled living on the margin of society.
Leprosy is endemic in 25 countries. In 1999, 740,000 new cases were registered; of these, 80,000 were children. A quarter-million have permanent disabilities.