Q&A: New Director’s Vision for Zero Leprosy

An estimated 200,000 new cases of leprosy are detected each year. Leprosy is a nerve-damaging neglected tropical disease that has caused stigma and isolation for centuries. Incidences of this disease have greatly decreased over the years, but the final mile of ending transmission has been stalled by various challenges, most recently COVID-19. 

The Task Force’s Global Partnership for Zero Leprosy (GPZL) facilitates alignment of all stakeholders in the leprosy community and accelerates effective action toward the goal of zero leprosy. Bill Gallo, MBA, recently joined the Partnership as its new secretariat director and here he shares his plans and insight into what’s facing the leprosy community today.

 Q: As the new director, what do you see the role of GPZL in the leprosy community?

I see our role as supporting GPZL members in implementing the action framework that has been outlined by the leprosy community through GPZL. A piece of that is helping countries implement operational strategies that have been outlined by the research agenda and framework. This year we have selected 10 countries, from Kiribati to Cambodia to Nigeria, where we will be implementing a country model that focuses on country-led customized strategies to address local needs and priorities to end leprosy. 

Q: What interested you in this position and the global effort to reach zero leprosy?

In my last position with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as Senior Advisor for the Pacific islands, I worked with island nations that faced significant challenges due to leprosy. During that assignment, I had an inspiring visit with a community of people affected by leprosy in Hawaii. It was very emotional and eye-opening to learn firsthand about the challenges and stigma of living with leprosy. That was my first personal experience with this disease and it has fueled my interest in leprosy ever since. 

Also, being in public health for a long time, I get excited about working on diseases where there is an opportunity to wipe a disease out. That’s what excites me about working with the leprosy partner community. And finally, I have a lot of respect for The Task Force and GPZL, seeing how much has already happened in the Partnership’s short lifespan. They have made great progress in laying out the approach and focus of activities.  I’m coming in at a point where program implementation, which is my expertise and passion, is taking off.

Q: Stigma is a major problem for people affected by leprosy. How do you think this can be addressed?

I think the only way we can fully understand stigma is to have a close relationship with persons affected by leprosy and those who experience stigma firsthand. This means that GPZL needs to remain committed to involving persons affected by leprosy in our activities at every stage so that they are informing our strategies and agendas. It is also important to remember that stigma manifests very differently around the world. For example, India still operates special schools and vocational training schools for people affected by leprosy. In Paraguay, schools cannot admit the children of a person affected by leprosy. Culture shapes stigma, so having such a large and diverse network as we do is very important to being able to address stigma in multifaceted ways.

Q: You’re joining during a global public health crisis. How is this crisis going to shape your approach as director?

Disease elimination programs are very vulnerable right now due to the pandemic. I think more than ever we need to take guidance from our partners and the countries and hear their main concerns as we navigate an unprecedented era. It has become clear to me in talking to several partners that one of the main goals of the community is to regain lost time, so I see that as an area where we want to focus, through our COVID-19 Working Groups, for example. Fortunately, I’ve already seen how the various partners in the leprosy community have embraced the latest technologies and innovative approaches to help keep activities going. While we’re in a crisis, it is inspiring to see how partners’ commitment to zero leprosy is helping this disease elimination effort overcome the challenges of COVID-19. 

Q: Where do you see synergies between leprosy and other disease elimination efforts?

There are many ways that we can work with other disease elimination efforts. We have a unique opportunity because many of our fellow Task Force programs focus on disease elimination. I’ve already seen examples of when we’ve benefitted from the wealth of expertise from other Task Force programs such as the development of our research agenda. I think there are even more ways we could share across different program areas. 

The leprosy community itself is unique because it is tight-knit and has a robust history of non-governmental partners. We have a strong foundation to help us sync up with other disease elimination efforts.

Header photo: A doctor checks a patient’s hands for loss of muscle strength, a sign of leprosy, at a local health post in southern Nepal. Photo courtesy of the Global Partnership for Zero Leprosy.

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