I have repeatedly written letters to newspapers over the years to protest the use of the word “leper.” Recently, I was delighted to learn that the BBC have added an entry to their style guide and will avoid using this word in future in favor of more dignifying terminology.
Ensuring that the media have a proper understanding of leprosy is an important task of the Goodwill Ambassador. Newspapers and TV broadcasts reach millions of people. That’s why I never decline the opportunity to be interviewed when I visit a country, no matter how tight my schedule. The media are one of the biggest partners in my endeavors.
In India, I recall being interviewed 12 times in one day. I repeated the same messages until my throat was sore. But what is that discomfort compared to the discrimination suffered by people affected by leprosy?
However well-intentioned reporters and editors are in covering leprosy, and in faithfully reporting my call for an end to stigma and discrimination, more often than not the pejorative ‘L’ word creeps into the headline or is used in the body of the story. Recently this headline appeared on the website GhanaWeb: “Leprosy Ambassador targets discrimination against lepers”. The article that follows goes on to report that I “cautioned against the use of derogatory terms such as lepers or its equivalent in other languages.” On the one hand, my message is being conveyed; but on the other, it is being undermined by the insensitive choice of language used by journalists. Needless to say, this is not a problem limited to Ghana.
That said, thanks to media cooperation over the years, knowledge about leprosy is spreading and this has undoubtedly contributed to the dramatic fall in case numbers. For this, I thank the media for their cooperation and coverage. From now on, I urge all news organizations to take a leaf out of the BBC style manual and refer to people affected by leprosy in language that accords them the dignity and respect they are due.
Yohei Sasakawa, WHO Goodwill Ambassador
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