Year 2005 was a glorious moment in the history of India’s fight against leprosy. India reached the magical number of having less the 1 new case per 10,000 population – the benchmark set by WHO for a country to achieve elimination of leprosy as a public health concern. Indeed it was no mean achievement to bring down the prevalence rate from around 50 per 10,000 at the time of Independence to less than one at a national level.
While India euphorically celebrated this achievement by integrating its leprosy programme into the general health program, Mr Yohei Sasakawa shifted the fight to include the rehabilitation and integration of leprosy affected people into mainstream society. From his innumerable travels to the several leprosy colonies spread across India, he was quick to realize that his mission of eliminating leprosy would not be over unless the stigma against leprosy affected people was eradicated and they were reintegrated into society. He also realized that this fight against the social stigma and discrimination, to be real, effective and sustainable would have to be led by leprosy affected people themselves.
According to him the fight against leprosy is like the two wheels of a motorcycle; the front wheel is the medical treatment and care; the back wheel is that of social and economic rehabilitation of leprosy affected people.
Having supported the front wheel for decades, Mr Saskawa, through The Nippon Foundation, of which he is the Chairman, took two visionary steps viz: one, facilitating the setting up of the National Forum of Leprosy Affected People ( now renamed as Association of Persons Affected by Leprosy) – an association of leprosy affected people living in colonies across the country so that they could work together to lead the fight for their acceptance in society and their inclusion in the several welfare schemes of the government; and two, setting up of a foundation that would facilitate the economic empowerment of leprosy affected people so that they could move out of the demeaning dependence on alms and begging and begin to earn their livelihood with dignity. Sasakawa-India Leprosy Foundation as this organization is called came into being on 21st November 2006