Faith leaders have joined the World Health Organisation's Goodwill Ambassador for the Elimination of Leprosy in calling for an end to the common misuse of the word "leper", which they believe has become a deeply discriminatory and damaging term.
Speaking at the launch in London, UK, of the fourth Global Appeal to End Stigma and Discrimination Against People Affected by Leprosy, coinciding with World Leprosy Day, Yohei Sasakawa said the word "carries the meaning of a pariah, or social outcast."
He continued: "Once that label has been applied it sticks for the rest of a person's life. The stigma remains even after he or she has been cured."
Sasakawa said that people affected by leprosy have asked that the term should not be used as an insult.
"Unfortunately", he added, its use continues to this day in the news media, including the UK media, impacting on the dignity and human rights of people with the disease."
The WHO ambassador appealed for an end of the misuse of this word. "Let it no longer be used as a term of derision and exclusion."
The 2009 Global Appeal has been publicly supported by leaders of faith communities from around the world. They want the power and influence of religion to challenge deeply discriminatory attitudes in society towards leprosy.
Sixteen religious leaders including Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, the Dalai Lama, the chair of the Indonesian Council of Muslim Ulamas, the President of the Japan Buddhist Federation, the Chief Rabbi of Israel, the President of the Pontifical Council for Health Pastoral Care at the Vatican and the general gecretary of the World Council of Churches, have signed the Appeal.
Yohei Sasakawa said that "since an affective cure became available in the mid-1980s, 16 million people have been cured of leprosy worldwide. But, if we include family members, perhaps as many as 100 million people face leprosy-related discrimination in some form, often on a daily basis."
"Lobbying of the United Nations has resulted in the UN Human Rights Council passing a unanimous resolution in June 2008, to eliminate stigma and discrimination against leprosy-affected people," he added.
The resolution was sponsored by 59 countries, including the United Kingdom. However "countries including the United States and the United Kingdom have regulations restricting the issue of work or residence permits to people with leprosy," says the WHO. This is in contravention of the resolution.
The Christian gospels include a number of instances of Jesus healing lepers - which in the context of the time meant not just the restoration of health but also a challenge to religious and societal exclusion and a call for genuine community.