02/13/2012 02:27 EST | Updated 04/13/2012 05:12 EDT

WHO says leprosy still around after being declared eliminated from the Western Pacific region

MANILA, Philippines - The World Health Organization warned Monday that the battle against the age-old scourge of leprosy is not yet over, with more than 5,000 new cases reported yearly in the Western Pacific, where the disease was declared eliminated in 1991.

WHO regional director Shin Young-soo said the Marshall Islands, Micronesia and Kiribati are three of 37 countries in the region that have failed to meet the target of lowering cases to less than one per 10,000 people — the health body's definition of leprosy elimination.

He cited the example of the Philippines, which was declared largely free of leprosy in 1998 yet still sees some 2,000 new cases recorded yearly.

He told reporters that China has around the same number of new cases each year.

"This is unfinished business and we need to walk that last mile," Shin said.

He called on member countries not to be complacent because of the region's success in meeting the elimination target, to recognize that leprosy still causes much suffering and that more needs to be done to achieve true leprosy elimination.

The call was made at the start of a three-day meeting of national leprosy control program managers from the Western Pacific.

Leprosy is not a killer and is today easily cured. It affects mainly the skin but if left untreated, can damage nerves. It typically starts as a light-colored patch on the skin that can go unnoticed because it causes no pain. In the worst cases, fingers and toes are lost or blindness occurs.

The bacteria that causes the disease multiplies very slowly, with an incubation period ranging from three to 20 years.

Philippine Health Secretary Enrique Ona expressed concern that the number of new cases yearly in the Philippines may be underreported.

He said the country is reviewing its leprosy program, and is educating the public that the disease is not easily transmitted and patients need not be ostracized by the community.

"This thing should be in the radar of every public health as well as our general practitioners," Ona said. "I think this is a wake up call for us to be able to really eliminate it."

Alberto Romualdez, a former Philippine health secretary and head of a foundation that works to control leprosy, said combatting the disease has been low on the country's health priorities because prevalence is low compared to major diseases.

He said the health reporting system was deficient and methods of looking for leprosy cases have not been updated.

Shin said there are more cases found among the lower classes because they have less access to health services.

He said the stigma of the disease has even prompted some families with an afflicted member to move away from their communities to hide in remote areas.