On Sunday, Pope Benedict XVI called for greater care and attention to a disease thought by many to be nearly extinct--leprosy.
The 53rd World Day of Leprosy, held Sunday, was themed, "Lord, if You will, you can make me clean." It was first initiated by Raoul Follereau and, as the Pope pointed out, continues to be celebrated today, thanks to "associations that draw inspiration from his humanitarian work."
During his Sunday Angelus, Benedict addressed special greetings to those suffering from the disease and encouraged "the missionaries, health care workers, and volunteers committed on this frontier in the service of mankind."
"Leprosy”, he said, “is a symptom of a more serious and widespread evil: poverty. For this reason, following the footsteps of my predecessors, I renew the appeal to leaders of nations to unite their efforts in order to overcome the grave imbalances that still penalize a large part of humanity."
For the occasion, Cardinal Javier Lozano Barragan, president of the Pontifical Council for Health Care Ministry, prepared a message addressed to presidents of national episcopal conferences and to bishops in charge of pastoral health care ministry.
The Cardinal wrote that The Church on this Day "wishes to listen to the very many people in the world who are still afflicted by Hansen's disease. ... [She] wants to give voice to their cry for help so that all of us together feel involved, with our various capacities and responsibilities, in the commitment to offer practical answers for the care and treatment of those suffering from leprosy."
The Cardinal went on to say that while scientific and pharmacological progress now enables leprosy to be treated in its early stages, there still remains "broad swathes of sick people and vast regions of the world that do not yet have these possibilities at the level of treatment."
He cited statistics from the World Health Organization which illustrate his point, saying that at the beginning of 2005, 47,596 cases of the disease currently exist in Africa, 36,877 in America, 186,182 in South East Asia, 5,398 in the Eastern Mediterranean, and 10,010 in the West Pacific.
He also wrote that there exists a certain regression in the disease, citing that "from 763,263 people suffering from leprosy in 2001, the figure fell to 407,791 in 2004."
He said however that "The just and shared satisfaction at the results that have been achieved in the fight against Hansen's disease should not mean less commitment or that the permanent needs, the endemic causes of the disease, the prejudices that still exist... should be forgotten.“
“A decisive effort”, he stressed, “could be made to finally, and in every part of the world, eliminate the disease of leprosy."
Cardinal Barragan used the opportunity to invite national and international bodies, non-governmental organizations, and local Churches "to respond in a more effective way to contemporary needs at the level of prevention and the treatment of people who are at risk or are already affected by leprosy."
He also called "for the free distribution of pharmaceuticals," and stressed "the need to create and train ... groups of social and health care workers who are able to act in the local areas, diagnosing in good time the presence of this disease and treating it."
At the end of his message, Cardinal Lozano expressed gratitude for the efforts of Christian communities and missionaries "in the fight against the disease of leprosy and in providing loving care to people afflicted by it."
Likewise, he emphasized how "the Church has always in so many countries of the world worked with total devotion to the welcoming ... and the social reintegration of those who have, or have had, leprosy.”
“On January 29, in particular,” he wrote, “we invite our communities to remember, during the Eucharistic celebration of the Total Body of Christ, the many people and families that still suffer because of the disease."