Mario Osava interviews YOHEI SASAKAWA, president of the Nippon Foundation
– Yohei Sasakawa has dedicated half of his 80 years of life to combating the “disease of silence” and is still fighting the battle, as president of the Nippon Foundation and World Health Organisation (WHO) goodwill ambassador for elimination of leprosy, formally known as Hansen’s Disease.
His current emphasis is on combating the discrimination, prejudice and stigma that aggravate the suffering of people with leprosy, their families and even those who have already been cured. They also stand in the way of treatment, because people with the disease keep silent out of fear of hostility, he told IPS in an interview in the Brazilian capital.
“I travel around the world and speak out against the discrimination that marginalises those affected by the disease. But these are prejudices that have existed for 2,000 years; they cannot be overcome in two or three years. Many share my viewpoint and accompany me in the struggle. One day the discrimination will end. It is more difficult to cure the disease that plagues society than the illness itself. My effort is to hold a dialogue with presidents and ministers, people in positions of leadership, so that my message acquires political strength and can lead to a solution.”
Sasakawa visited Brazil Jul. 1 to 10, as part of his activism aimed at reducing the prevalence and social impacts of a disease stigmatised since biblical times. In Brasilia, he mobilised President Jair Bolsonaro, legislators and health and human rights officials to promote more intense efforts against the disease.
The idea of holding a national conference on Hansen’s Disease emerged from the meetings, with the political objective of disseminating knowledge and bolstering the disposition to eradicate prejudice, and the technical goal of improving strategies and efforts against the disease.
Brazil is second only to India with respect to the number of new infections diagnosed each year. The country implemented a National Strategy to Combat Hanseniasis from 2019 to 2022, with plans also at the level of municipalities and states, tailored to the specific local conditions.
The Tokyo-based Nippon Foundation is funding several projects and is preparing to support new initiatives in Brazil.
Brazil and Japan abolished the word leprosy from their medical terminology, due to the stigma surrounding it, and adopted the term Hanseniasis to refer to the disease caused by the Mycobacterium leprae bacillus. Sasakawa used this name during his interview with IPS, even though the WHO continues to employ the term leprosy.
IPS: Why did you choose as your mission the fight against Hansen’s Disease and the different kinds of harm it causes to patients and their families?
YOHEI SASAKAWA: It started with my father, the founder of the Nippon Foundation, who as a young man fell in love with a young woman who suddenly disappeared when she was taken far away and put in isolation. My father was appalled by the cruelty and, driven by a spirit of seeking justice, he started this movement. No one discussed the reason she was taken away, but I sincerely believe it was because she had Hanseniasis.
Later my father built hospitals in different places, including one in South Korea, where I accompanied him to the inauguration. On that occasion I noticed that my father touched the hands and legs of the patients, even though they had pus. He hugged them. That impressed me.
I was surprised for two reasons. It frightened me that my father so easily embraced people in those conditions. Besides, I wasn’t familiar with the disease yet. I saw people with a sick, unhealthy pallor. They were dead people who were still alive, the living dead, abandoned by their families.
I was filled with admiration for my father’s work and immediately decided that I should continue it.
IPS: What are the main difficulties in eradicating Hanseniasis?
YS: In general, when faced with a problem specialists and intellectuals come up with 10 reasons why it’s impossible to solve. I have the strong conviction that it is possible, and that’s why I address the problem in such a way that I can identify it and at the same time find a solution.
The people who find it difficult generally work in air-conditioned offices pushing around papers, studying the data. The most important thing is to have the firm conviction that the problem can be solved and then begin to take action.
Since the 1980s more than 16 million people have been cured of Hansen’s Disease. Today, 200,000 patients a year are cured around the world.
IPS: What role do prejudice, stigma and discrimination play in the fight against this disease?
YS: That is a good question. After working for many years with the WHO, focusing mainly on curing the disease, I realised that many people who had already been cured could neither find work nor get married; they were still suffering the same conditions they faced when they were sick.
I concluded that Hanseniasis was like a two-wheeled motorcycle – the front one is the disease that can be cured and the back one is the prejudice, discrimination and stigma that surround it. If you don’t cure both wheels, no healing is possible.
In 2003, I submitted to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights a proposal to eliminate discrimination against Hanseniasis. After seven years of paperwork and procedures, the 193-member General Assembly unanimously approved a resolution to eradicate this problem that affects the carrier of the disease as well as those who have been cured, and their families.
But this does not mean that the problem has been solved, because prejudice and discrimination are the disease plaguing society.
People believe that Hanseniasis is a punishment from God, a curse, a hereditary evil. It’s hard to eradicate this judgment embedded in people’s minds. Even today there are many patients who have recovered and are totally healed, who cannot find a job or get married. In spite of the new laws, their conditions do not improve, because of the prejudice in people’s hearts.
In Japan, several generations of the family of someone who had the disease were unable to marry. This is no longer the case today.
That’s why I travel the world and speak out against the discrimination that marginalises those affected by the disease. But these are prejudices that have existed for 2,000 years; they cannot be overcome in two or three years.
Many share my viewpoint and accompany me in the struggle. One day the discrimination will end. It is more difficult to cure the disease that plagues society than the illness itself.
My effort is to hold a dialogue with presidents and ministers, people in positions of leadership, so that my message acquires political strength and can lead to a solution.
IPS: How did Japan manage to eradicate Hansen’s Disease?
YS: One way was the collective action of people who had the disease. Long-term media campaigns were conducted to spread knowledge about the disease. Movies, books and plays were also produced.
In Japan, Hanseniasis ceased to be the ‘disease of silence’. The nation apologised for the discrimination and compensated those affected. But in other countries, people affected by the disease have not yet come together to fight. Brazil, however, does have a very active movement.
IPS: As an example of what can be done, you cite Brazil’s Movement for the Reintegration of People Affected by Hanseniasis, MORHAN. Are there similar initiatives in other countries?
YS: Morhan really stands out as a model. Organisations have been formed by patients in India and Ethiopia, but they still have limited political influence. The Nippon Foundation encourages such movements.
IPS: You’ve visited Brazil more than 10 times. Have you seen any progress on this tour of the states of Pará and Maranhão, in the north, and in Brasilia?
YS: On that trip we couldn’t visit patients’ homes and talk to them, but we did see that the national, regional and local governments are motivated. We will be able to expand our activities here. In any country, if the highest-level leaders, such as presidents and prime ministers, take the initiative, solutions can be accelerated.
We agreed to organise a national meeting, promoted by the Health Ministry and sponsored by the Nippon Foundation, if possible with the participation of President Jair Bolsonaro, to bolster action against Hanseniasis.
We believe that this would generate a strong current to reduce the prevalence of Hanseniasis to zero and also to eliminate discrimination and prejudice. If this happens, my visit could be considered very successful.
IPS: What would you emphasise about the results of your visit?
YS: The message that President Bolsonaro spread directly to the population through Facebook during our meeting, with his view addressed to all politicians, to his team and and to all government officials on the need to eliminate the disease. I feel as if I have obtained the support of a million people who will work with us.