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Missionaries criticise WHO claims that leprosy is defeated

Italian missionaries serving in Ghana and Uganda have described as "dangerous triumphalism" claims by the World Health Organisation that leprosy has all but disappeared.

WHO Director General Dr Gro Harlem Brundtland made the following announcement earlier this month: "Together we can take pride in this victory in reducing to very low levels one of the most dreadful diseases to have ever afflicted mankind."

But Fr Giorgio Abram, a Franciscan who has cared for leprosy suffers in Ghana for 25 years, warned that it is not enough to look at statistics and that WHO's claim could encourage governments to sit back and reduce their commitment in the struggle to eliminate leprosy once and for all.

Sr Fernanda Pellizer, a Comboni Sister who has cared for lepers for ten years in Uganda, agrees that "progress has been made in treating leprosy, but we must not lower our defences."

Fr Abram said the complete elimination of the disease will only be achieved by a general improvement of the living conditions of the people at risk.

He criticised the WHO, suggesting it is one of a number of "bureaucratic bodies which have little or no direct contact with the sick [but instead] work with statistics".

There are still 25 countries in which leprosy is endemic. In 1999, 740,000 new cases were registered, of these 80,000 were children. 250,000 have permanent disabilities which will remain with them for life.