FIGHT VS. LEPROSY. Yohei Sasakawa, WHO Goodwill Ambassador for Leprosy Elimination, with His Holiness Pope Francis during their meeting at the Vatican on Jan. 26, 2023. Sasakawa requested the Pope to help eliminate leprosy. (Photo by Vatican Media via Vatican Pool/Getty Images)

TOKYO – World Health Organization (WHO) Goodwill Ambassador for Leprosy Elimination Yohei Sasakawa asked for support from Pope Francis to eliminate leprosy and the prejudice and discrimination associated with the disease.

Sasakawa made the request when he paid an audience with His Holiness at the Vatican on Jan. 26, 2023.

In response, the Pope expressed his gratitude for the work of the goodwill ambassador, who also serves as chairman of The Nippon Foundation.

The Pope said it is necessary to continue activities against leprosy, also known as Hansen’s disease, encouraged by the fact it is curable.

Earlier in the week, Sasakawa attended a two-day international symposium on Hansen’s disease titled “Leave No One Behind.”

It was the second symposium on Hansen’s disease to be held at the Vatican since 2016 and was co-hosted by French Raoul Follereau Foundation, Italian Association Amici di Raoul Follereau and Sasakawa Leprosy (Hansen's Disease) Initiative, in collaboration with the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development.

Pope Francis sent a message to participants on the opening day, thanking them for their commitment to eliminating leprosy.

“We must not ignore this disease, which unfortunately still afflicts many people, especially in the most disadvantaged social contexts,” he said.

He said the upcoming 70th World Leprosy Day celebrated on Jan. 29, was “a fitting occasion to try to renew our commitment to building an inclusive society, that leaves no-one at the margins.”

During the private audience, Pope Francis, who visited the Japanese city of Nagasaki in 2019, produced a photograph taken after the atomic bombing of the city in August 1945. It shows a young boy waiting in line at a crematorium, carrying his dead sibling on his back.

“War is a tragedy,” Pope Francis said. “War must never happen again.”

At the end of their meeting, Sasakawa asked the Pope to pose for a photograph next to a banner reading “Don’t Forget Hansen’s Disease”, a campaign that Sasakawa initiated in 2021 to ensure that leprosy is not overlooked even amid the coronavirus pandemic.

“This one photograph will help persons affected by leprosy all over the world,” he told the Pope.

Speaking afterward, Sasakawa commented: “It is clear how much warmth and love Pope Francis has for the oppressed. He has given me great strength and filled me with courage in my work against leprosy and the stigma and discrimination it causes.”

Leprosy, also known as Hansen's disease, is an infectious disease that mainly affects the skin and peripheral nerves. Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, which disrupted case-finding activities, over 200,000 new cases were being reported annually.

Leprosy is curable with multidrug therapy, but left untreated can result in permanent disability. An estimated 3 to 4 million people are thought to be living with some form of disability as a result of leprosy.

Many myths and misunderstandings surround the disease. In various parts of the world, patients, those who have been treated and cured, and even their family members continue to be stigmatized. The discrimination they face limits their opportunities for education, employment and full participation in society. (PNA)