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June - July 2007


Health

International Gandhi Award for Yohei Sasakawa

Wardha, Maharashtra, India, 12 April: Mr Yohei Sasakawa, Chairman of The Nippon Foundation, received the International Gandhi Award for 2006 from India’s Vice-President, Shri Bairon Singh Shekhawat. The award – described as one of India’s highest honours – is made every three years by the Gandhi Memorial Leprosy Foundation, which was established in 1951 to perpetuate the memory of Mahatma Gandhi’s abiding interest in the control and eventual eradication of leprosy.

The award – ten of which have now been conferred – is given to an individual or institution that has made a significant contribution to ‘improving the quality of life of leprosy affected persons and helping them to lead normal lives in society.’ Vice-President Singh Shekhawat chairs the award committee which includes a number of senior Indian government ministers.

Mr Sasakawa was appointed Goodwill Ambassador for Leprosy Elimination in 2001 by the World Health Organisation (WHO). He has devoted his life to the elimination of the disease while combating the social stigma and discrimination associated with it. An estimated 100 million people are still victims of this discrimination.

Speaking at the ceremony in Wardha, Maharashtra State, Yohei Sasakawa said that “from eliminating leprosy as a public health problem, we are moving toward eradicating the disease altogether. But leprosy has another aspect; a social aspect. We still have a long way to go before the stigma and discrimination associated with the disease have been banished. Until then, people affected by leprosy will not truly be free of it”.

The Vice-President described Mr Sasakawa as an “exceptional man of our times in the field of leprosy eradication”

“Today”, he said, “the biggest challenge we face is the integration of the leprosy-cured persons into society’s mainstream. A large number of leprosy-affected people, after they are cured, remain poor and below the poverty line… they are denied their fundamental right of life with dignity”.

On World Leprosy Day 2006, in New Delhi, Yohei Sasakawa led eleven world leaders including former US President Jimmy Carter, the Dalai Lama and former President Venkataraman of India, in issuing the first Global Appeal, calling on ‘people all over the world to change their perception and foster an environment in which leprosy patients, cured persons and their families can lead normal lives free from stigma and discrimination.’

On 29 January this year, in Manila, Mr Sasakawa joined 16 representatives of people affected by leprosy in a Global appeal calling for the restoration of their dignity and recognition of their inherent human rights. As the Global Appeal 2007 stated: ‘Denying the inherent human rights of anyone on the basis of disease is indefensible. Discrimination can never be justified. Silence on this issue is not acceptable.’

Leprosy is among the world’s oldest diseases. If left untreated, it can result in severe deformity. Only in the 1980s did an effective cure become available – multidrug therapy, MDT. More than 15 million people were subsequently cured of the disease.

Cases of leprosy are still found in many countries, though currently less than 300,000 people develop leprosy each year. India, which accounts for 70 per cent of the world’s leprosy cases, has achieved WHO’s target in eliminating leprosy as a public health problem (less than one person in 10,000). However there are still over 700 leprosy colonies in India which help to perpetuate the myth, the stigma and the discrimination.

Yohei Sasakawa has concentrated much of his efforts on India, visiting more than 20 Indian states in the campaign against discrimination. In 2006, he established a new foundation in India, the Sasakawa-India Leprosy Foundation, to assist in the economic independence and social rehabilitation of leprosy-affected people in the country. In 2001, he was given the Millennium Gandhi Award by the International Leprosy Union – presented by former President Venkataraman of India.

Since the 1960s, The Nippon Foundation has supported leprosy control efforts in many countries. From 1975, as a key partner of WHO, it began to take an active effort to eliminate leprosy as a public health problem, including a five year programme to provide free MDT to every country in the world. Since 2003, when Yohei Sasakawa first approached the UN Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights about the social discrimination suffered by people affected by leprosy, The Nippon Foundation has actively focused on the social aspects of the disease.

The first International Gandhi Award was presented in 1986. The award was last given, in 2003, to Dr H Srinivasan, the reconstructive surgeon who has devoted his 34 year career to correcting deformities of leprosy-affected people. In 2000, the winners of the award were ALERT in Ethiopia and India’s Dr K V Desikan, now the Chairman of the Gandhi Memorial Leprosy Foundation.

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