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Ending stigma and isolation key to leprosy elimination, UN health agency says

Ending stigma and isolation key to leprosy elimination, UN health agency says

Despite great progress towards the goal of eliminating leprosy as a public health problem, serious concerns remain in several countries, the United Nations lead health agency said today at a gathering of leprosy endemic countries and partners in Myanmar.

The annual gathering sponsored by the World Health Organization (WHO), brought together the global health community that agreed in 1999 to create the Global Alliance to Eliminate Leprosy (GAEL) with a target of eliminating leprosy as a public health problem by the year 2005. Among the 122 countries where the disease was considered endemic in 1985, 108 have now reached the goal of elimination at the country level. Today, however, 90 per cent of cases are found in India, Brazil, Nepal, Madagascar, Mozambique and Myanmar.

The reasons why some countries may miss the 2005 deadline are complex and include the delay in improving access to leprosy treatment, particularly in highly endemic areas, WHO said. The continued existence of specialized leprosy services also tends to hinder the full integration of leprosy services into the primary health care system.

"Diagnosing and treating leprosy through the public health system is vital if we are to avoid continuing stigma and prejudice against leprosy patients," said Dr. David Heymann, Executive Director in charge of Communicable Disease Programmes at WHO.

In recent years, however, access to leprosy diagnosis and treatment within general health services has been greatly improved, WHO said. Mass media campaigns have also helped create awareness of the availability of free and effective treatment as well as to dispel fear about the disease.