Opening remarks by Dr Shin Young-soo, WHO Regional Director for the Western Pacific

Manila, Philippines
13 February 2012

Dr Enrique Ona, Secretary, Department of Health, Government of the Philippines

Prof Kenzo Kiikuni, Chairman of the Board, The Sasakawa Memorial Health Foundation

Dr Alberto Romualdez , Jr, President of The Culion Foundation

National leprosy programme managers, national and international partners supporting leprosy control,

Ladies and gentlemen,

I would like to extend a warm welcome to all of you to this meeting of the national leprosy programme managers in the Western Pacific Region.

Before I assumed this position as Regional Director, I thought that leprosy was something of the past, a disease that was pretty much confined to medical text books and a disease I was unlikely to encounter in my professional life.

And then in 2009, as Regional Director for the first time, I visited three Pacific Island Countries - Marshall Islands and Federated States of Micronesia and Kiribati – and I found out that I was wrong.

Leprosy is not a disease of the past.

It is a disease of the present.

In the Pacific I saw that young children – children as young as 5 years – were still contracting this disease and that many adults were still suffering the painful and debilitating consequences of this illness.

And the same is true in a number of other countries in our Region, including here in the Philippines.

But despite what I saw for myself on my travels, I was told that leprosy had been 'eliminated' from most of our region.

I was puzzled.

So I asked my technical people what was really meant by 'eliminated'.

And I was surprised to discover that elimination does not mean zero new cases or zero transmission.

It just means that transmission is low and that the number of cases is small – less than one per 10 000 population but not zero.

A big difference.

So big a difference, in fact, that in a region that is supposed to have virtually eliminated leprosy we still report over 5000 new cases a year, including 400 new cases in children and 500 patients with Grade 2 disabilities.

And because the surveillance systems for this disease are not strong in many parts of our region, the actual number may be even higher.

That is why I raised this issue in the 2010 Regional Committee Meeting, which is the highest governing body of the Region, and committed myself to pulling leprosy out of the neglected corner and work towards true elimination.

We must continue to bring the number of new infections down by targeted interventions in high endemic areas.

This is unfinished business and we need to walk that last mile.

Technically, it is possible to drive down transmission and offer effective treatment to those affected.

We have the drugs.

We have the knowledge.

But for some reason this has not happened consistently across our region.

This is the reason why I decided to convene this meeting of National Leprosy Programme Managers in the Western Pacific Region You can help to identify and to address the programmatic and health systems barriers that are stopping us from driving down transmission, providing treatment and caring for those with long term complications.

In addition to these technical challenges, I also want this meeting to strengthen coordination between all the very willing and very able partners.

I am delighted that so many partners have joined us at this meeting, and I trust that the Partners forum at the end of the meeting will mark the first step to intensified efforts and collaboration in our Region.

Ladies and Gentlemen, the ongoing suffering of thousands of patients is unacceptable, given that we have tools available to drive down transmission, effectively treat patients and care for those with complications.

We may not need large amounts of funding, but we do need political commitment and a coordinated approach of technical agencies to strengthen leprosy services.

For the past 40 years, the Nippon Foundation has supported leprosy control and played a critical role in the Region.

Their contribution and that of technical partners were vital.

The great number of technical agencies attending this meeting suggests there is momentum to finish the job.

I strongly believe TOGETHER we can do it.

I wish you all fruitful discussions during the meeting.

Thank you.