A ban on foreign leprosy sufferers and their relatives entering China was lifted on Sunday, in a bid to end discrimination against them, a quarantine official said Thursday.
Xia Wenjun, an information officer with the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine (AQSIQ), said that as well as the removal of the general restriction, which had been in place since 1989, a guideline issued on June 2 by BOCOG, which prevented those with the disease from entering China during the Games, was also retracted.
"The reason we lifted the ban is because China has made a commitment to the international community to end discrimination against leprosy sufferers," Xia said.
On June 2, the United Nations Human Rights Council passed a resolution on the elimination of discrimination against people with leprosy and their family members. China was one of 44 countries that sponsored the agreement, according to the UN's website.
"The rule does not just apply to the Olympics, but will remain in place after the Games," Xia said.
Leprosy is a chronic disease, which if left untreated can cause permanent damage to the skin, nerves, limbs and eyes.
Figures from the World Health Organization show that last year there were 224,717 registered cases around the world, with the majority coming from underdeveloped and developing countries, such as India and Brazil.
In China, 3,264 cases were reported, most of them in southwestern regions.
Despite its debilitating effects, experts have stressed that leprosy can be treated and is not highly infectious.
Shen Pengzhang, vice-secretary-general of the China Leprosy Association and a consultant to the Ministry of Health, said the disease is transmitted via droplets from the nose and mouth during "close and frequent" contact.
"About 95 to 99 percent of people are naturally immune to leprosy," he said.
"And 99 percent of the leprosy bacillus (bacteria) loses its efficacy if the sufferer receives treatment for more than three days."
In China, leprosy is classified as a third degree infectious disease, the same as flu, he said.
"As far as I know, not a single member of our medical team has ever become infected."
However, leprosy sufferers and their families continue to suffer discrimination because of the public's lack of awareness, he said.
Earlier this month, the China Leprosy Association submitted a proposal to have the ban on sufferers entering the country lifted, he said.
"I'm glad our suggestion has been valued, but it's only a start in eliminating discrimination against this group."
Human rights groups have said the removal of the ban is a sign of progress.
Liu Nanlai, deputy director of the human rights research center of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said: "It shows the country has not only expressed a will to eliminate discrimination, but also put it into practice."
It also shows China is adopting more international practices to improve its own human rights situation, he said.