To all the world, leprosy is a curse. Its power to deform the
face and body terrified the ancients and also their heirs. For most of history, leprosy
sufferers lived apart, cast away by their frightened brethren to dwell alone or in squalid
colonies of untouchables. And so it was in Pakistan when Dr. Ruth Pfau arrived in 1960.
Pfau was born in Germany and in her youth survived the havoc of Nazism, war, and foreign
occupation. Amid the ferment of postwar Europe, she became a doctor and found direction in
Catholicism. She joined the Daughters of the Heart of Mary, a religious order dedicated to
the relief of misery, and asked to be sent to Asia.
Destined for a mission station in India, Pfau stopped along the way in Pakistan. There, in
a Karachi slum, fellow members of her order had set up a ramshackle leprosy dispensary
named after their founder, Marie Adelaide. Seeing the squalor and suffering, Pfau blurted
out, "It can't go on any more like this," and halted her journey on the spot.
Pfau quickly reorganized the rough-hewn dispensary into a properly run leprosy clinic,
despite the ambient filth and disorder and legions of needy patients. By chance, her
efforts drew the attention of the German Leprosy Relief Association, which, along with
other German donors, began to provide regular funding.
In two years' time, she transferred the Marie Adelaide Leprosy Centre (MALC) to a proper
hospital building and established a full-service leprosy treatment and rehabilitation
center, free to patients. Volunteer specialists helped her, but Pfau built her staff
mainly by training former patients to diagnose and treat the disease and to keep records.
Meanwhile, she took note of the home districts of her patients and identified Pakistan's
leprosy belt-the first step in creating a national program of eradication.
In 1968, Pfau invited the government of Pakistan to undertake a National Leprosy Control
Programme in partnership with MALC. Soon, she and her team began setting up
leprosy-control centers across the country. Pfau traveled to the most remote and rugged
corners of Pakistan, making now-legendary treks by horseback and camelback and by foot. In
her far-flung clinics, MALC-trained paramedics identified leprosy victims and drew them
into treatment. Multidrug-Regimen chemotherapy, introduced in 1984, offered a timely and
effective cure. But Pfau trained her staff always to treat the person, not just the
disease. She fostered social rehabilitation and worked desperately to remove the public
fear of leprosy, making a point of holding her patients' hands and calmly entering their
dwellings for all to see.
Today, Karachi's eight-story Marie Adelaide Leprosy Centre is the hub of one hundred
seventy leprosy control centers, with some eight hundred staff members. Leprosy still
occurs in Pakistan. But by 1996, Pfau's efforts had so reduced its incidence that the
World Health Organization declared the disease to have been controlled in Pakistan, one of
the first countries in Asia to achieve this goal. These days, Pfau's regional centers
sometimes double as tuberculosis or eye health clinics. Meanwhile, seventy-two-year-old
Pfau, retired now, is busy helping to feed and repatriate Afghan refugees adrift in
Pfau long ago claimed Pakistan as home. She would like to do more there. "If I could
be reborn again," she says, "I would certainly dedicate myself to women's rights
in Pakistan." As MALC's guiding spirit, she reminds people of her own life-shaping
realization of many years ago: A leprosy victim, no matter how wretched, has "only
one life to live out-one single life, a life just like mine."
In electing Ruth Pfau to receive the 2002 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Public Service, the
board of trustees recognizes her lifelong dedication to eradicate leprosy and its stigma
in Pakistan, and other loving gifts to her adopted country.