No.51 Ambassador’s Message:The Importance of Research

At a recent meeting in Yangon of national leprosy program managers for the WHO’s Southeast Asia region, WHO Regional Director Dr. Samlee Plianbangchang talked about the need for more research into the disease if we are to progressively reduce the burden of leprosy in the world.

This is an important topic. Multidrug therapy is the key to controlling leprosy and to preventing disability. But we must think ahead to the day when resistance to MDT develops. I understand that research into alternative treatment regimens is proceeding. It is a necessary undertaking when considering the long-term future of leprosy control.

The disease has a long incubation period and is slow to develop. Ideally, we need reliable and simple diagnostic tools to confirm diagnosis when the disease is in its early stages, or when there is some doubt over the symptoms. Along with this, let us develop a prophylaxis for individuals at high risk of getting leprosy, such as household members of leprosy patients, so that they can be protected from the disease.

On my travels as Goodwill Ambassador, I have seen many cases of people who suffer from leprosy reaction after they have been cured. Caused by the immune system’s response to the presence of dead bacilli, reaction can result in nerve damage and disability if not treated properly. We need to find better ways of dealing with reaction and its debilitating effects.

For now, MDT is our most effective weapon against leprosy. Millions of people have been cured since its introduction. Cases numbers are coming down. But this success is part of the reason why the field seems less attractive to young researchers when they consider what area to specialize in.

Leprosy is still with us. To continue toward our goal of a world without leprosy, we will need to use our existing tools well. But we also need to develop new and improved tools to improve our chances of getting there. For that, we need research.

Yohei Sasakawa, WHO Goodwill Ambassador


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