Lessons From the Wrong Isolation Policy Violating Human Rights for Leprosy in Japan
Leprosy, caused by Mycobacterium leprae, is one of the so-called “neglected tropical diseases” and is found today mainly in Africa, Asia and South America. Although oral antibiotics capable of curing leprosy are now available, the disease is still misunderstood and feared by the public because of the unsightly deformities that it may cause. In Japan, leprosy has been present since the 8th century and was regarded as a hereditary disease; people avoided marrying into a family with a member affected by leprosy. At the beginning of the 20th century, the Japanese government instituted a policy of lifetime quarantine of individuals with leprosy to eradicate the disease, thereby purposely disseminating negative and inaccurate perceptions of the disease as deadly and highly contagious and fostering a long-lasting prejudice among the general public towards those affected. Even after effective treatments became available, the government continued quarantining patients until 1996. The government has since then apologized to the patients for violating their constitutionally guaranteed human rights. Children with leprosy and children born to parents with leprosy were also victims of the policy and prejudice created. We describe herein the history of leprosy-related policies in Japan to emphasize the importance of balancing public health policy with human rights.