On Feb. 28, 2023, WHO Goodwill Ambassador for Leprosy Elimination Yohei Sasakawa joined in marking the 150th anniversary of the discovery of the leprosy bacillus by Dr. Gerhard Armauer Hansen by attending an event at the University of Bergen in Norway.
Dr. Hansen was born in Bergen, and he discovered the leprosy bacillus on Feb. 28, 1873, in his Bergen laboratory. At the time, Bergen was the center of leprosy research worldwide, and for more than half a century, leprosy researchers from all over the world visited Bergen to study the disease. Dr. Hansen was one of the first to advocate for the establishment of a medical school in Bergen, and the University of Bergen, which opened in 1946, considers him one of its founders.
The commemorative event began solemnly with a choral performance by the Grieg Academy. In addition to the Goodwill Ambassador, speakers included Margareth Hagen, Rector of the University of Bergen; Linn Kristin Engø, Mayor of Bergen; Abbi Patrix, great-grandson of Dr. Hansen; and experts from the University and City of Bergen, who shared their views on the past, present, and future of the disease and related issues.
Mr. Patrix said that Dr. Hansen wrote in his journal when he was 69 years old that he was not confident in his memory or physical strength, and so would write things down before they were lost. Mr. Patrix himself happens to be 69 years old this year, but he still feels mentally sharp and physically strong. He attributes his health to the great strides taken by medical science, and he believes that pioneers like his great-grandfather changed the course of humanity.
The Goodwill Ambassador emphasized that despite a widespread impression that leprosy is a “disease of the past,” it is in fact an “ongoing disease” with 200,000 new cases registered annually worldwide. It is also a disease that continues to be misunderstood. More than 100 discriminatory laws — including prohibitions against using public transportation and recognition of leprosy as a legitimate reason for divorce — are wrongly still in force in over 20 countries. In order to achieve “zero leprosy,” it is necessary to continue to send a message to the world that leprosy and related stigma and discrimination should not be neglected under any circumstances. In closing, the Goodwill Ambassador urged everyone to unite under the banner of his “Don’t Forget Leprosy” campaign.