The Novartis Foundation and Novartis Healthcare Philippines joined key stakeholders from around the world in pledging to foster a global partnership to stop leprosy.
The major leprosy control stakeholders made their pledge during the 20th International Leprosy Congress held recently at the Philippine International Convention Center in Pasay City.
During the congress, the Leprosy Alert and Response Network System or LEARNS, the Philippines’ first mobile phone-based leprosy detection system, was recognized as a valuable tool for leprosy case finding, diagnosis, and surveillance.
Dr. Arturo Cunanan, Jr., chief of the Culion Sanitarium and General Hospital in Palawan, highlighted the role of LEARNS in accelerating diagnosis and treatment.
The Department of Health Center for Health Development VI team’s poster presentation featured LEARNS as a systematic active contract tracing approach using data collected for the past five years. Several countries including India and Nepal have expressed interest in replicating the system.
In his message, Yohei Sasakawa, Nippon Foundation of Japan chairman and World Health Organization Goodwill Ambassador for Leprosy Elimination, stressed that leprosy is not only a medical issue but also a human rights issue, lamenting that in some countries leprosy patients are denied treatment because of prejudice and discrimination. He also acknowledged the Multi-Drug Therapy medicines donated by Novartis to the WHO.
“Since 2000, thanks to Novartis, MDT medicines are continuously being supplied for free today,” said Sasakawa.
MDT is a combination of three antibiotics and is considered the most effective treatment for leprosy. Two of the antibiotics used in MDT were developed by Novartis.
“The Novartis Foundation is privileged to be part of a global partnership to advance our common goal of making leprosy history. Our involvement in the partnership builds on three decades of experience in the area, and a long-standing commitment to exploring innovative ways to interrupt the transmission of leprosy,” said Mark Alexandre Rogers, senior global program head of Novartis Foundation.
As part of this long-standing commitment, the foundation has pioneered approaches in leprosy diagnostics, and approaches to leprosy screening using digital technology. One of these innovative approaches is LEARNS.
The Novartis Foundation worked with DOH, Department of Science and Technology, local IT company Metahelix, and Novartis Healthcare Philippines in developing the system.
LEARNS allows frontline healthcare providers to send images of suspect leprosy lesions and symptoms via SMS or via an app to a specialist, who can decide on further diagnostic actions to verify the diagnosis. It currently covers 14 provinces in five regions.
To date, close to 5,000 healthcare providers have been trained in LEARNS across the nation. A technical toolkit is being prepared, so that this validated digital health solution can be transferred to other locations and replicated in other countries.
“Novartis will continue to work with partner stakeholders around the world in implementing the Novartis Foundation’s four-pillar strategy to interrupt the transmission of leprosy,” said Christine Fajardo, corporate affairs head of Novartis Healthcare Philippines.
She continued, “This strategy includes early diagnosis and prompt treatment for all leprosy patients, screening and post-exposure prophylaxis for people who have contact with newly diagnosed patients, and development of new diagnostic tools and surveillance systems that trigger swift intervention.”