National Director describes announcement that former leprosy patient will carry Olympic torch as ‘heartwarming’ and a ‘beacon for change’

National Director of The Leprosy Mission Peter Waddup has described the announcement that a former leprosy patient will be an Olympic torch runner in Tokyo as ‘heartwarming’ and a ‘beacon for change’.

Leading Japanese newspaper The Mainichi reported how 92-year-old Yasuji Hirasawa, a leader of a leprosy colony in western Tokyo, was barred from entering the Tokyo Olympic stadium in 1964 because of discriminatory laws surrounding leprosy.

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

The Mainichi reported Mr Hirasawa’s delight on Tuesday [17 December) when he heard he is to be an Olympic torch relay runner in the Tokyo 2020 games. This follows the abolishment of the controversial Leprosy Prevention Law in 1996.

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 the bear, but I want to carry the torch with their thoughts in my heart.”

Peter Waddup praised Mr Hirasawa’s campaigning spirit and determination.

He said: “Our biggest challenge in ridding the world of leprosy is overcoming stigma and ignorance surrounding leprosy. 

“Tragically all too often I have heard people’s stories of being thrown out of their families, communities, workplaces and schools because of leprosy which is just absurd as it is an entirely curable disease.

“If treated in its early stages leprosy leaves no lasting effects on a person. But fear of rejection sees a person hide the early signs and they can then go on to develop terrible lifelong disabilities including blindness.

“I can’t think of any other disease as stigmatised as leprosy.

“To hear Mr Hirasawa’s joy of running with the Olympic torch really is heartwarming and is a beacon of change to the world to attitudes surrounding leprosy.”

This year The Leprosy Mission completed its biggest ever stigma-tackling project in India where more than a million people are living with the physical and emotional scars of leprosy.

With the help of a £1m European Union grant, its CREATE project trained 516 people affected by leprosy as ‘Leprosy Champions’ to fight for the rights of thousands of people affected by leprosy.

As a result, 7,000 people affected by leprosy are now being helped by the Indian government having accessed benefits including pension payments and food rations that they are legally entitled to.

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

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

Peter said: “Huge strides have been made to tackle the stigma surrounding leprosy but there is still so much more to do. Our CREATE project saw people who previously begged on the street for their next meal being given the food rations they are entitled to.

“It is our duty to continue to fight for the rights of people affected by leprosy, some of the most discriminated against people on the planet.

“Mr Hirasawa’s role in the Tokyo 2020 Olympic games is a real inspiration to what we can achieve together in changing attitudes.”