Wednesday, 15 February 2012 7:31 AM

Final Push Needed to Address Leprosy in Western Pacific

MANILA, 13 February 2012 - WHO's Western Pacific Regional Office today urged its Member States to make a final push to address leprosy in the Region.

In 1991, WHO launched a global campaign to eliminate leprosy as a public health threat and set a leprosy elimination target of less than one case per 10 000 of population. In that same year, the Western Pacific Region met the elimination target. Over the next two decades, new leprosy cases in the Region declined a remarkable nearly 90%.

Still, three Western Pacific countries - the Federated States of Micronesia, Kiribati and the Marshall Islands - fail to meet the target. And there are still more than 5000 new cases of leprosy reported in the Region each year. Most of these new cases - about 2000 each year - occur in the Philippines, where leprosy is supposed to have been "eliminated" as WHO defines elimination of the disease.

"Leprosy is curable," says Dr Shin Young-soo, WHO Regional Director for the Western Pacific. "We have the drugs, we have the knowledge. We can stop the disease from being transmitted from person to person. What we need is the political commitment to finish the job of true leprosy elimination in the Western Pacific."

Dr Shin urges policy-makers, health care workers and the general public not to be misled by the Region having met the elimination target, saying it is important for everyone to recognize that "leprosy still causes much suffering" and that "we need to address the unfinished business of true leprosy elimination".

"Leprosy elimination in the Western Pacific is a paradox," Dr Shin says. "On one hand, all but a few small countries in the Region have eliminated leprosy as WHO defines elimination of the disease. On the other, we continue to see a disappointingly high number of new reported cases each year, including in more than 400 children. Most of those cases are occurring in countries that meet the elimination target but continue to have hot spots of disease.

"My fear is that our commendable achievement of the elimination target could be misinterpreted as true elimination and lead us down a path of complacency. This would be disastrous for people who are most at risk of contracting the disease."

WHO's call to action is taking place at the start of a three-day meeting of national leprosy control programme managers at the WHO Western Pacific Regional Office in Manila. WHO called the meeting to introduce its new global leprosy control strategy, to review the latest epidemiological data and to help strengthen countries' capacity to control the disease.

Among the countries that will be represented are Cambodia, China, the Federated States of Micronesia, Kiribati, the Lao People's Democratic Republic, Malaysia, the Marshall Islands, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines and Viet Nam. Together, these countries account for more than 95% of the burden of leprosy in the Western Pacific. Among the confirmed speakers are Dr Shin, Sasakawa Memorial Health Foundation Chair Prof Kenzo Kiikuni, Philippine Secretary of Health Dr Enrique T. Ona and Culion Foundation President Dr Alberto Romualdez, Jr.

"Leprosy control is about more than just preventing transmission of the disease from person to person," Dr Shin says. "It's also about detecting the disease before it has a chance to disable its victims, providing them with the drugs that have made leprosy curable and removing the social stigmas associated with the disease. WHO is committed to all of these objectives."