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Pakistan mourns German doctor Ruth Pfau

August 10, 2017

Ruth Pfau, a German doctor renowned in Pakistan for treating leprosy and tuberculosis patients over half a century has died aged 87. Pfau's Karachi-based center now has 157 outposts across Pakistan.

Pakistan Ruth Pfau Lepra-Ärztin
Image: DAHW/Uli Reinhardt

Pakistani President Mamnoon Hussein described Doctor Pfau's death as a great loss for the nation in which her clinics strive to save leprosy patients from disfigurement, blindness and social exclusion.

Pfau was known in Pakistan as the "mother of leprosy patients" and was compared by Radio Vatican in 2014 to Mother Teresa, another late Roman Catholic nun revered in India. 

Initial reports said Pfau wished to be buried in Karachi, the capital of the Pakistani province of Sindh.

Leipzig-born Pfau had studied gynaecology in Bonn before she arrived in Karachi in 1960 en route to India as a new member of the Hearts of Maria Order.

Dr Ruth Pfau in 2004
Dr Ruth Pfau in 2004Image: DAHW

Delayed by a visa problem in Karachi, she decided to stay after encountering slum dwellers who suffered from the nerve and skin infection leprosy.

Leprosy is now also called Hansen's Disease (HD) after the Norwegian scientist, Gerhard Armauer Hansen who identified the causative bacteria in 1873. 

Crawling on his hands and knees

Pfau's deciding moment, she recounted decades later, came while visiting a leprosy ghetto behind a Karachi railway station and watching a crippled man crawling on his hands and knees through dirt.

In 1979, Pakistan's then government appointed Pfau as national adviser on leprosy and tuberculosis-control programs at the rank of state secretary.

She headed the Karachi-based Maria Adelaide Leprosy Centre (MALC) and from 1980 began extending her group's work to neighboring Afghanistan. Daily management past to a Pakistani colleague in 2012.

The MALC, with its 157 outposts across Pakistan, often in remote areas, claims to have healed more than 50,000 leprosy sufferers. In 1996, rates of new infection across Pakistan reportedly reached a historic low.

Street children in Karachi, Pakistan
Street children in Karachi, PakistanImage: DW/U. Fatima

'Quiet hero'

Pfau received numerous awards, including an Albert-Schweitzer medal in 2004, Pakistani and German state awards, and a German television BAMBI prize for "quiet heroes" in 2012 for her treatment of leprosy.

Her MALC had also been involved in recovery work after the Pakistani floods in 2011.

Her team's work was interlinked with German and Austrian charities, including the German Leprosy and Tuberculosis relief agency (DAHW) based in Wurzburg.

DAHW president Gudrun Freifrau von Wiedersperg on Thursday praised Pfau's work, saying she had helped tens of thousands of individuals in Pakistan to gain a "new life."

Never indifferent

Interviewed by Germany's Der Spiegel magazine in 2015, Pfau was asked if she ever feared that one day she would become indifferent to suffering: "I don't think so. At some stage it becomes clear to yourself: Life is just so. One should not succumb to the temptation not to look," Pfau said.

Asked why she did not stay in Germany, Pfau replied that she left in 1960 as Germany's post-war "economic miracle" was starting but noticed that some of its citizens were still not landing on the "sunny side of life."

"That got on my nerves," Pfau said. "I'd experienced the war in Leipzig as a young girl, the bombs, the complete misery. I wanted the best for everyone. But that is exactly what did not happen."

Global unfairness

Pfau added that her work as a leprosy doctor mitigated her sense of guilt about unfairness in the world. "I was never meant to just sit and watch, she said."That is the worst."

"I have had the great luck to be able to apply my capabilities, to do something," she said, adding: "In all that I did, I was never alone," and she added ".. through our efforts many people have been helped."

Pakistan, a "wonderfully beautiful" country, had become her heartland, Pfau concluded.

According to the World Health Organization, 212,000 more people were affected by leprosy in 2015, with most of the cases in India, Brazil and Indonesia. 

ipj/jm (dpa, AFP; KNA)