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WHO, Centre in leprosy row

New Delhi, Nov. 16: The World Health Organisation and the Union health ministry seem to be talking at cross purposes on leprosy and the social ostracisation faced by the patients.

The WHO believes leprosy patients in India still face a lot of social and legal discrimination, but the Centre asserts such days are over.

Derek Lobo, the regional adviser in the WHO, said: “There are several discriminatory laws still being followed in India. The Indian Lepers Act of the 1890s was repealed in 1982. After that, all the states finally managed to repeal their respective acts by 1994.”

Ashok Kumar, deputy director general of leprosy in the ministry, however, said: “There are no discriminatory laws in India at present. The law which used to discriminate against leprosy patients is now dead.”

Refuting Lobo’s claim that leprosy still constitutes a ground for divorce and for banning recruitment in the armed forces, Kumar said: “These laws are no longer in effect.”

Yohei Sasakawa, WHO’s ambassador for the elimination of leprosy, did not bear out Kumar’s statement when he said: “Hundred million people are discriminated throughout the world because of their affliction with leprosy. Even after being cured, they are not rehabilitated within their families and in society.”

After hearing out Kumar’s denial of any discrimination in India, Sasakawa told him at the joint media conference on Friday: “As a public personality, you have to make public statements. But as a representative of a private organisation, I can make a different statement.”

Recently, he undertook five trips to India and visited Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Orissa and Uttar Pradesh where leprosy is still high.

The first four states have a prevalence rate of five per 1,000 people. In Uttar Pradesh, it is 4.12 per 1,000, in Bengal, 2.7 per 1,000. Over all, the leprosy rate has reduced from 57.6 in 1981 to 3.2 in 2003. There are still 300 leprosy colonies throughout the country, indicating a widespread prevalence of social ostracisation.

Sasakawa said he would appeal to the UN to treat discrimination against leprosy patients as a violation of human rights, making it clear that discrimination is rampant not only in India but throughout the world.

Yesterday he met health minister Sushma Swaraj to discuss the WHO’s target of eliminating leprosy by 2005.

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