The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Cast out the disease, not the victim

“I will make sure that by 2005, leprosy is eliminated in India – even if I have to come back here every month.” That is Yohei Sasakawa’s oath to this country — and to the world. The president of Japan’s Nippon Foundation, the foremost agency fighting the global battle against leprosy, is keenly aware that India, with “80 per cent” of the world’s leprosy patients, is pivotal to his goal of reducing the incidence of the disease to one in 10,000 people. “I want to prove to the world it is possible to solve one of its major problems,” says the unassuming man, on arriving in the city on Thursday night from Tokyo.

The 63-year-old, bubbling with an inner energy, gave up business at the age of 40 to pursue his life’s passion. The scale of his achievement is almost difficult to fathom. From 1995 to 1999, the Nippon Foundation sponsored all the world’s required leprosy medication, spanning 67 countries. After the Global Alliance for Elimination of Leprosy was put in place in 1999, with the Foundation and the World Health Organisation as leading partners, the pharmaceutical company Novartis, also part of the league, took over the responsibility of providing the world’s leprosy medication free.

“Hansen’s Disease (the official name for leprosy in Japan) is the only disease in the world where treatment is free,” stresses Sasakawa, with the help of an interpreter. “There is no reason it cannot be stopped. Politicians must have the will to fight the disease. It is my role to change the thought of the leaders that this is not a curable disease.” In India, where leprosy is still prevalent in seven states, including West Bengal, Sasakawa, who met health workers in Burdwan on Friday, feels political leaders have “no awareness”.

In 1985, the disease was a public health threat in 122 countries. Now, India is amongst only half-a-dozen countries to still host the disease. The others are Nepal, Angola, Mozambique, Brazil and Madagascar. In Myanmar, leprosy was eliminated last month.

Sasakawa’s work has included meeting world leaders to keep leprosy “on the agenda”. The Pope, Mother Teresa, Jimmy Carter (with whom he has collaborated to “fight famine in Africa”), Indira Gandhi, Margaret Thatcher and Michael Gorbachev are just some names on the list. One of his only regrets is that he couldn’t arrange a meeting for his father — the pioneer of the project and the son’s inspiration — with the Pope and Mother Teresa. “They wanted to work together, but then Mother Teresa fell ill, and it couldn’t be arranged.”

The fight against leprosy is only one of the Foundation’s projects. Funded through a unique scheme where 3.3 per cent of proceeds from motorboat racing in Japan goes to Nippon Foundation, it initially started operations in 1962 as the Japan Shipbuilding Industry Foundation, working to prevent marine hazards. Slowly, it spread to larger philanthropic activities. Apart from “public welfare projects in Japan”, the Foundation created far-ranging international programmes, scholarship funds and bodies for the promotion of peace and Japanese culture. They spent 10 years cleaning up Chernobyl.

Involvement in India does not end with leprosy. “I want to get involved with higher education now. I am studying a few Indian universities to select two or three where we can set up scholarship programmes,” reveals Sasakawa. “Also, the people of our two countries have always got along very well. I would like to strengthen cultural ties further.”

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