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Former leprosy patient to carry Olympic torch 13th January, 2020

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Leading Japanese newspaper The Mainichi recently reported how a former leprosy patient, 92-year-old Yasuji Hirasawa, is to be an Olympic torch relay runner in the Tokyo 2020 games.

This is a huge turnaround for Mr Hirasawa, a leader of a leprosy colony in western Tokyo, as, in 1964, he was barred from entering the Tokyo Olympic stadium because of discriminatory laws surrounding leprosy.

Instead, passionate athletics fan Mr Hirasawa watched by the side of the road as his favourite athlete Kokichi Tsuburaya competed in the marathon.

Thanks to the abolishment of Japan’s controversial Leprosy Prevention Law in 1996, Mr Hirasawa is now able to participate fully in society, something that he and his friends were denied for many years.

Mr Hirasawa was reported to say: “I want to make this an opportunity for people to understand that leprosy is curable.

“[In 1964] the Olympics were happening within my reach, but I wasn’t allowed in. I was frustrated.

“Taking up the role of a runner in the torch relay will help comfort the spirits of my friends who were left to die disappointed. It’s a heavy cross to bear, but I want to carry the torch with their thoughts in my heart.”

Joanne Briggs, TLM NI Director, praised Mr Hirasawa’s campaigning spirit and determination.

She said: “One of the biggest barriers to finding and curing people affected by leprosy is stigma and discrimination.

“Sadly, as I have sat and listened to people affected by leprosy talk about their experiences, I have heard many stories of people being rejected by their families, losing jobs and being thrown out of their communities – all because of the fear and myths surrounding leprosy.

“People often seek help too late because they are terrified of being isolated yet leprosy is completely curable and, if caught early enough, the person will not suffer any lasting effects of the disease.

TLM is working hard to bring an end to stigma and discrimination. In Tanzania, our Community Health Education Programme is ensuing that, every year, thousands of people are learning the facts about leprosy and being screened for the disease; this is helping to change people’s attitudes towards leprosy.

Advocacy efforts led by The Leprosy Mission and other human rights defenders ensured that leprosy is no longer grounds for divorce in India when outdated legislation was repealed at the end of 2018.

This is hugely beneficial particularly to women who are all too often left destitute as a result of their husbands divorcing them because of leprosy.

Joanne said: “We are committed to continuing to fight for the rights of people affected by leprosy who are often some of the most marginalised and forgotten people in the world.

“Mr Hisasawa’s story is a real inspiration to other leprosy sufferers who have faced discrimination for many years – it gives them hope that change is possible!”

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