Pope Francis I to meet with victims of Huntington’s disease, a first for a world leader

In an unprecedented encounter, the first for any pope or world leader, Pope Francis I on May 18 will meet with Huntington’s disease sufferers at the Vatican, bringing new attention to this affliction.
The key papal guests will hail from Latin America, the pope’s home region, the area with the world’s most Catholics, and a key focus of the quest for the HD gene from the 1970s to the 1990s.
Several HD-affected HD individuals (with both juvenile and adult onset), three at-risk relatives, and other relatives and caregivers – a total of 16 people – will travel to Rome from Colombia, Venezuela, and Argentina, the pope’s birthplace.
The news was announced today via e-mail by an international coalition of patient advocates and organizations: “save the date for the largest global gathering of the Huntington’s disease community!”
The coalition includes Elena Cattaneo, Ph.D., a prominent HD scientist and senator-for-life in Italy; Factor-H, a humanitarian project founded by HD researchers Claudia Perandones, M.D., Ph.D., and Ignacio Muñoz-Sanjuan, Ph.D.; global HD advocate Charles Sabine; and the Huntington’s Disease Society of America (HDSA).
Many physicians in Latin America laid the groundwork for the event through their long-term dedication to local HD communities and assistance in selecting the families.
The announcement comes, coincidentally, on the fourth anniversary of Francis’s election as the first pope from the Americas.
“What I want him to say, in some way, is that the disease should not be hidden anymore,” Sabine, an HD gene carrier, told me. “That’s the theme of the event: that people should not feel any shame or stigma about the disease.”
“This is a dream which has come true,” Dr. Perandones affirmed in a written response to questions about the event. “After working for nearly 20 years in Latin America in order to try to improve the quality of life of patients, and feeling so alone in this endeavor so many times, it seems unbelievable that the pope will receive us.”