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The Long Struggle Against the Stigma Surrounding Hansen’s Disease

BRASILIA, Jul 16 2019 (IPS) - At the age of 80, Yohei Sasakawa continues to travel around the world to promote solutions for some of the challenges facing humanity, such as Hansen’s Disease or leprosy, wars and disabilities, factors of stigma and exclusion.

Engaging in dialogue with world leaders and with those affected by Hansen’s Disease, who are generally poor, is his way of mobilising local efforts, with the financial and technical support offered by the 23 organisations that network with the Nippon Foundation, whose board of directors has been chaired by Sasakawa since 2005, after his 17 years as executive president.

Social innovation is the declared mission of the Foundation, created in 1962 as a private, not-for-profit entity based in Tokyo.

Since 2001, Sasakawa has been a World Health Organisation (WHO) goodwill ambassador for leprosy elimination.



Since 2013, he has also served as the Japanese government’s special envoy for National Reconciliation in Myanmar (Burma), reflecting the diversity of his activism, which ranges from protecting the oceans to assisting the disabled and vulnerable children.

For more than 40 years, he has devoted much of his work to combating Hansen’s Disease and its associated ills, such as prejudice, stigma and discrimination, which persist despite the fact that this infectious disease is known to be completely curable and stops spreading once treatment begins.

As part of his work against leprosy, Sasakawa was in Brazil Jul. 1-11, where he met with political and health authorities in the northern states of Pará and Maranhão, two of the states with the highest incidence of leprosy, a medical term banned in the country and replaced by Hanseniasis.

Later, in Brasilia, Sasakawa met with President Jair Bolsonaro and his health and human rights ministers. They agreed to hold a national meeting in 2020 on Hansen’s Disease in Brazil, the country with the second highest number of new cases in the world, with 26,875 in 2017, second only to India with 126,164 cases, according to WHO data.

Sasakawa is particularly concerned about the problems of discrimination and inequality, and not just the disease, he says in this interview with IPS.

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