With many countries now combating the coronavirus pandemic, my scheduled trip to Brazil from March 15 to 22 was called off when the National Hansen’s Disease Summit 2020 that I was to attend in my capacity as chairman of The Nippon Foundation and WHO Goodwill Ambassador for Leprosy Elimination had to be postponed.
When I last visited Brazil in July 2019, I pointed out to President Jair Bolsonaro that his country has the second largest number of cases of Hansen’s disease, also known as leprosy, after India, and remains the only country in the world that has yet to achieve elimination of Hansen’s disease as a public health problem−with ‘elimination’ defined by the WHO as a prevalence rate of less than 1 case per 10,000 persons.
In response, the president promised to redouble his country’s efforts against the disease and decided to hold the National Hansen’s Disease Summit on March 19 this year. The summit would have brought together not only the president and First Lady Michelle Bolsonaro, but also ministers, governors, municipal leaders, health secretaries, doctors and researchers, NGO representatives as well as persons affected by the disease.
But on March 10, the Brazilian government revealed that President Bolsonaro’s press secretary tested positive for the fast-spreading coronavirus, forcing the postponement of the conference.
Had the summit taken place as scheduled, it had been my expectation that Brazil would have been on track to pass the ‘elimination’ milestone in a few years, paving the way for leprosy to be declared eliminated as a public health country in every country.
During my visit, I had planned to meet with the president again, and also meet the first lady, Michelle Bolsonaro, who is actively involved in a number of social causes, to discuss the goal of a Hansen’s disease-free Brazil. I had also planned to meet with the governors of Brazil’s six endemic states: Mato Grosso, Tocantins, Maranhão, Para, Pernambuco, and Piaui.
When I talked with President Bolsonaro during the July visit, he suggested that we reach out to the nation together right away, picking up his mobile phone and starting a live broadcast on Facebook. During the live broadcast, the president stressed that Hansen’s disease is a challenge that the government must be involved in, and that he will work with me. This 13-minute video message was viewed more than 700,000 times, attracting countless comments.
For now, the summit is on hold, but The Nippon Foundation and its partner organization, the Sasakawa Health Organization, will prepare for when it can be rescheduled, hopefully at the earliest opportunity. In the meantime, my thoughts are with the Brazilian authorities in their efforts to contain the spread of the coronavirus in their country.