08 June 2016, The Tablet

Faith leaders can help stop leprosy stigma, say Vatican conference organisers

by Daniele Palmer

230 delegates will attend the two-day conference at the Vatican

The leaders of the three main world religions have the power to reverse the stigma attached to leprosy, according to the organisers of a global medical conference meeting in the Vatican this week. 

Over 230 delegates from 45 countries are expected to attend the two-day meeting that starts today in Rome’s Patristic Institute Augustinianum, among them faith leaders, doctors, medical volunteers and former leprosy sufferers.

“It is a great power to have the leaders from all these major religions get together and talk about leprosy because the leaders from the different religions have the influential power to convince their believers,” Yohei Sasakawa, Chairman of conference co-organisers the Nippon Foundation, told Catholic News Agency.

According to Sasakawa, since the 1980s as many as 16 million people have been cured of leprosy, or Hansen’s Disease, as it is officially known. However roughly 200,000 new cases a year are recorded, almost all in developing countries.

The Pontifical Council for Healthcare Workers alongside the Good Samaritan Foundation and the Nippon Foundation, have organised the event to share best practice to improve access to medical treatment and to protect those with leprosy from exclusion and isolation. 

Expert speakers are expected to explain how curing the disease, which disfigures the human body, is relatively straightforward and is slowly being eradicated, but stigmatisation of sufferers is rife.

“Disability does not mean inability,” Dr Ivo Graziani, who works for the humanitarian body of the Order of Malta, said at a press conference in the Vatican yesterday. He added that the Order, which runs centres in South-East Asia to help re-integrate those cured of leprosy back into society, were taking a “comprehensive approach to the rehabilitation of leprosy-affected patients”. This approach includes scholarships for schools and universities and loans to start up small businesses.   

Both Saint Francis and Saint Damien were renowned for their leprosy ministries. Francis famously bathed a leper who was embarrassed by his own physical condition, while Damien courageously ministered to the leper colony of Molokai in Hawaii, contracting the disease himself.

Leprosy primarily affects people in south-east Asia, Africa and Latin America, but once the correct treatment is administered a person with the disease is completely cured and no longer contagious.  The Church is continuing to battle for its eradication even though many in the west have forgotten its existence. 

The event will welcome 30 individuals who have been cured from the disease, some of whom will share their testimonies of suffering and societal exclusion – at times even from their families – due to misconceptions and cultural prejudices toward those infected with Hansen’s Disease.

The two-day conference will conclude with a Mass celebrated by Pope Francis for the Jubilee of Sick and Disabled Persons.

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