15 February 2012The United Nations World Health Organization (WHO) has called for a “final push” to eliminate leprosy as a public health threat in the Western Pacific region, where more than 5,000 fresh cases of the curable disease are still reported each year. The number of cases worldwide has plunged since 1991, when WHO launched a campaign that set a “leprosy elimination target” of less than one case per 10,000 people, but the disease persists in a handful of Western Pacific countries.About 2,000 cases are still recorded each year in the Philippines, while Micronesia, Kiribati and the Marshall Islands have failed to meet the elimination target, WHO said in a press release issued in Manila on Monday.WHO is urging health-care workers, policy-makers and the wider public to remember that leprosy, which has long carried a social stigma, still causes much suffering.“Leprosy is curable,” said Shin Young-soo, WHO’s regional director for the Western Pacific. “We have the drugs, we have the knowledge. We can stop the disease from being transmitted from person to person. What we need is the political commitment.”The agency said the disease is confined largely to various “hot spots” in the Western Pacific, but noted with concern that as many as 400 cases of children contracting the disease are being reported each year.WHO is hosting a three-day regional meeting of national leprosy programme managers in Manila that wraps up today, with the aim of reviewing the latest epidemiological data on the disease.Caused by a bacillus, leprosy is a chronic, slow-moving disease that is transmitted via droplets from the nose and mouth. Untreated, it can cause permanent damage to the skin, nerves, limbs and eyes, but it is curable and early treatment can avert disability.At least four million people have been cured of leprosy since 2000, and the disease’s rate of prevalence has fallen by 90 per cent in the past two decades. About 213,000 cases were recorded worldwide in 2008, with pockets of the disease still found in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, the Western Pacific and Brazil.