The unfinished business of leprosy control

Leprosy was officially "eliminated" from WHO's Western Pacific Region in 1991, but the age-old disease remains a burden with more than 5000 new cases reported each year.

According to the definition adopted by the World Health Assembly in 1991, "leprosy elimination" means achieving a prevalence of less than one case per 10 000 of population.

Sadly, three countries in the Region – the Federated States of Micronesia, Kiribati and the Marshall Islands – fail to meet the elimination target. Although the Philippines has achieved the elimination target, the country nonetheless accounts for approximately 40% of new cases in the Region.

The burden of leprosy is compounded by widespread stigmatization and discrimination against people with the disease. Worldwide, 3 million people live with leprosy-related disabilities.

Leprosy is a contagious bacterial disease that affects the skin, mucous membranes and nerves, causing discolouration and lumps on the skin and, in severe cases, disfigurement and deformities. Without early intervention, leprosy can cause permanent nerve damage, such as loss of the sense of touch or even the ability to feel cuts or burns.

Fortunately, the disease is curable, and its severest effects are avoidable with early intervention. Treatment is inexpensive and stops transmission.

Fighting leprosy is an important public health and humanitarian concern for the World Health Organization (WHO). To help countries address the disease, WHO hosted a meeting of national leprosy control programme managers at its Regional Office in Manila, from 13 to 15 February 2012. In attendance were representatives from 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.

WHO introduced the countries to its new global leprosy control strategy, presented them with the latest data on leprosy and helped them to strengthen their capacity to control the disease.

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