Pakistan has always managed to find a saviour when most needed. Doctor Ruth Pfau, who recently passed away, was Pakistan’s own Mother Teresa. She was instrumental in looking after one of the most marginalised segment of our country, those suffering from leprosy.

Sister Doctor Ruth Katherina Martha Pfau was born in Leipzig, Germany’s tenth most populous city, on September 9, 1929 but her altruistic nature compelled her heart to settle in Pakistan. Post-World War II, the soviet occupation of East Germany forced her and her family to escape to West Germany where she studied medicine at the University of Mainz during the 1950s.

Being a nun and a member of the “Society of Daughters of the Heart of Mary”, a Catholic order, she was sent to Southern India to further the cause of the Catholic Church. Who would have thought that a mere visa complication would land Doctor Pfau in the Southern port city of Karachi and ultimately, lead Pakistan to become one of the first Asian countries to control the leprosy threat as declared by the World Health Organisation (WHO) in 1996.

It was in 1960, at the age of 31, when fate took her on her very first visit to the Lepers’ Colony in Karachi behind I I Chundrigar Road (previously known as McLeod Road), that she decided to make the fight against leprosy her life’s mission. Her initial struggles began from a small room in the slums, subsequent non-stop positive efforts paved the way for the foundation of Marie Adelaide Leprosy Centre (MALC) in Karachi and later in all the four provinces of Pakistan including Gilgit-Baltistan. MALC, after a couple of years, was transformed to the level of a proper hospital. Patients across Pakistan and even neighbouring Afghanistan used to come to Doctor Pfau for treatment.

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect was the bond created between Sister Pfau and the patients she cured. A glance at Madam Pfau’s staff members reveals that the staff mostly consisted of her previously diseased patients.

Leprosy is a long-standing infectious disease cause by a bacterium (singular of bacteria): Mycobacterium leprae or Mycobacterium lepromatosis. Also known as Hansen’s Disease (HD), the telltale symptoms include the inability to feel pain due to nerve damage, weakness in muscles and loss of vision. Injuries and wounds on the patient’s extremities go unnoticed, thus setting the stage for infection and ultimately leading to loss of the affected limb.

Leprosy has long been associated with fear and dishonour. “Leprostigma” or “Stigma of Leprosy” has ancient roots owing to the facial and bodily disfigurement which the disease inflicts on its victims. In the Middle Ages (5th to 15th century), the Church in Western Europe labelled diseased individuals as “unclean” and patients were made to wear a bell to indicate their arrival. In the 19th century, leprosy was thought to be linked to Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs) like syphilis.

The discrimination against leprosy victims sees no boundaries. Matsuo Fujimoto, an unfortunate Japanese leprosy patient, was charged with murder and dynamite explosion. The Japanese government that time used to openly discriminate against those suffering from leprosy. In 1962, he was controversially declared guilty by the court and hanged.

Still today, a large population of lay people across the world consider leprosy an incurable, highly contagious disease, thus forcing the diseased and their families into isolation. Doctor Ruth Pfau gave Pakistan’s shunned leprosy community a home. She dedicated more than half a century to eradicate all myths and stigmas associated with the disease.

Leprosy as a bacterial infection, requires a combination of two or three antibiotics (Rifampicin, Dapsone and/or Clofazimine). This multidrug therapy for a period ranging from six months to a year helps achieve effective cure in the patients. Contrary to common misconception leprosy is not highly contagious, in fact after the first month of receiving medication, the individual no longer remains infectious. The disease spreads only when a healthy person comes in close and repeated contact with nose and mouth droplets of an untreated patient.

The path ahead for Doctor Pfau’s national programme to eradicate leprosy now seems unclear. With her departure, we have lost perhaps the only source of light for the few remaining leprosy patients in Pakistan.


The writer is a medical doctor based in Islamabad.