While many in the developed world might consider leprosy a thing of the biblical past, the illness — officially called Hansen’s Disease — is still a problem for less-advanced nations coated with social stigma.

In order to address the problem, representatives of the world’s major religions will gather in the Vatican to discuss ending the discrimination and marginalization of those infected with Hansen’s Disease, as well as prevention and treatment research.

“It is a great power to have the leaders from all these major religions get together and talk about leprosy because the leaders from the different religions have the influential power to convince their believers,” Yohei Sasakawa told CNA June 7.

These leaders, he said, will be able to ensure that their believers are aware that Hansen’s Disease is curable, and that the medicine to treat it is being distributed free of charge by various organizations.

Once people are cured of the disease, “it is wrong to discriminate” against them, he said, adding that the general public “should treat these leprosy-affected people as equally as they treat people with disabilities who could be living around them.”

“This is the message that the religious leaders would be able to make in a very influential manner.”

Sasakawa is president of the Nippon Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to carrying out various philanthropic activities. It is among the organizations which distribute medicine free-of-charge to individuals infected with leprosy.

He is also the Japanese government’s Goodwill Ambassador for the Human Rights of People Affected by Leprosy and the World Health Organization’s Goodwill Ambassador for Leprosy Elimination.

Hailing from Japan, Sasakawa spoke during a June 6 news conference detailing the themes and events of an upcoming June 9-10 conference, called “Towards Holistic Care for People with Hansen’s disease, Respectful of their Dignity.”

The conference is set to take place in Rome’s Patristic Institute Augustinianum, and is being organized by both the Pontifical Council for Health Care Workers, the Good Samaritan Foundation and the Nippon Foundation.

While the modern presence of leprosy is widely unknown in advanced cultures, it’s still a problem for developing nations. According to Sasakawa, as many as 16 million people have been cured from the disease since the 1980s.

Roughly 200,000 new cases are discovered each year, the majority of which — about 70 percent — come from India, Brazil and Indonesia. Other cases of infection could exist, but are difficult to find due to the fact that many people in these countries live in remote areas that are either difficult or impossible to access.

In addition to hosting experts, doctors, diplomats and clergy from around the globe, the Vatican conference will also draw interreligious leaders from the world’s main religions — including Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism and Buddhism — to discuss the contribution of faith communities in caring for individuals with Hansen’s Disease, as well as ending cultural stigma surrounding the illness.

The event will also welcome 30 individuals who have been cured from the disease, some of whom will share their testimonies of suffering and societal exclusion — at times even from their families — due to misconceptions and cultural prejudices toward those infected with Hansen’s Disease.

“The problem with leprosy is that even if these people are cured of this disease, they would still be facing stigma as well as discrimination from society and from the villages where they live, just because they used to be a patient of leprosy,” Sasakawa said.

Up until recently, certain countries had laws preventing people with the disease, even those who have been cured, from getting onto trains or public buses. Some laws have even allowed for divorce should one spouse become infected.

In some cases, those affected by leprosy were barred from competing to become a parliamentarian, Sasakawa explained, noting that even today countries make it impossible for those affected by leprosy to immigrate, barring entry for those either sick or cured.

“Many people talk about the disease of leprosy, however there aren’t many people who have shaken hands with those patients or the infected people, or who have touched them or who have heard human history directly from these people who experienced that disease,” he said.

The testimonies from cured individuals, then, will be key to ending the stigma surrounding the disease, he said, because many people have never had any real contact with the patients, who often live a “very harsh and painful life throughout their experience” of illness.

“It’s not us who should be speaking on behalf of these people, but the patients and the infected people themselves…so that the public would be able to feel more sympathy and show more empathy to these people and their lives of hardship,” Sasakawa said.

He voiced his expectation that religious leaders who gather for the conference would cooperate in disseminating the correct information about leprosy, and would spread the message to their faithful that “people should not discriminate against people infected with leprosy.”

Sasakawa also voiced his hope that individuals who have already been cured would become more vocal, rather than staying silent due to the fear of discrimination.

Fr. Jean-Marie Mate Musivi Mupendawatu, secretary of the Pontifical Council for Pastoral Assistance the Health Care Workers, was also present for the news conference.

He told journalists that while there is no scheduled encounter between Pope Francis and conference participants or those who have been cured from leprosy, the Pope is known for his “surprises.”

The conclusion of the event will be a Mass celebrated by Pope Francis this Sunday, June 12, for the Jubilee of Sick and Disabled Persons, he said, but added that “there could also be other surprises from Pope Francis. For now we’re waiting. We still don’t know what surprise” might come.