Saturday June 15, 2024

Pfau’s tireless struggle

By Dr Ramesh Kumar Vankwani
August 25, 2017

Dr Ruth Pfau was, no doubt, a legendary figure who through her lifelong struggle and determination helped to completely eliminate leprosy from our beloved country. A German-born nun and doctor, Pfau arrived in Pakistan in 1960 and passed away over five decades later. Owing to her love for the people of the country, she was also known as the ‘Mother Teresa of Pakistan’.

The government of Pakistan announced a state funeral for her that was held at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in Karachi. The flags of Pakistan and Vatican City were raised at half-mast on the occasion. Draped in the Pakistani flag, her coffin was given a 19-gun salute by the Pakistan Army.

Dr Pfau was the first non-Muslim to receive a state funeral in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. The active participation of the top political and military leadership at Dr Pfau’s funeral was a clear testament of national harmony. Even members of the Christian, Muslim and Hindu communities were present on the occasion to pay their last respects.

Dr Pfau was born on September 9, 1929 in Leipzig, Germany and witnessed the horrific events of World War II. After the Soviet occupation of East Germany, she migrated to West Germany. Although she had completed medicine degree, Dr Pfau became an active member of the Daughters of the Heart of Mary, a Catholic religious institute that focused on serving humanity. She firmly believed that while not everyone can prevent a war, most people had the ability to ease the “sufferings of the body and the soul”.

In 1960, Dr Ruth arrived in Karachi with the hope of acquiring an Indian visa from the city. She was interested in meeting Mother Teresa. However, owing to a strict visa regime, she was denied entry to India.

During her stay in Karachi, she learnt about the miseries of leprosy patients. She was shocked to observe how brutally leprosy patients were treated in Pakistani society. Even close relatives of patients adopted a painfully indifferent attitude towards them. Most leprosy patients were isolated from the rest of the population. There was also a misconception among poorer patients that the disease was an outcome of their sins. Separate leper colonies were founded across the country. These colonies were usually on the outskirts of main cities.

The plights of leprosy patients persuaded Dr Pfau to stay in Pakistan. At that time, her organisation was running a small dispensary on McLeod Road to look after the leprosy patients. Dr Pfau prepared a comprehensive strategy to combat leprosy, which was then considered to be an incurable disease. She launched an effective awareness campaign that encouraged people to change their perceptions about leprosy patients and treat them with love and care. She worked arduously to change the mindsets of those who considered lepers to be untouchables.

With the support of another philanthropist Dr I K Gill, the leprosy centre established by Dr Pfau in Karachi was upgraded to a leprosy hospital in 1965. She used to travel throughout the country to trace leprosy patients and provide them medical treatment free of charge. In 1968, the National Leprosy Control Programme was launched through her efforts and soon she succeeded in establishing 156 leprosy-control centres in different parts of the country.

In addition to the language barrier, Dr Pfau faced another major hurdle:  securing financial funds to carry out her noble struggle against leprosy. She knocked on every door and even went to Germany to collect funds. Due to her tireless struggle, the WHO declared Pakistan to be the first Asian country where leprosy was controlled successfully. As many as 60,000 patients were treated. The government of Pakistan conferred numerous awards on Dr Pfau and even arranged for her to meet Mother Teresa.

The people of Pakistan are grateful to Dr Pfau for dedicating her life towards the betterment of Pakistan. Like other sensitive, peace-loving people of the country, Dr Pfau was also saddened by the unrest created in Pakistan in the name of religion as she believed that the purpose of religion was to serve humanity.

We must follow in Dr Pfau’s footsteps to transform our society into a civilised, tolerant and peaceful space where all segments can join hands. Leprosy was brought under check in Pakistan due to her selfless struggle. But there is also a dire need for collective efforts to control the social evils that are damaging our national integrity.


The writer is a member of the National Assembly and patron-in-chief of the Pakistan Hindu Council.

Twitter: @RVankwani