Award Goes to Missionary Dedicated to Eliminating Leprosy in Pakistan

Sister Ruth Pfau Helped Remove Stigma of the Disease

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MANILA, Philippines, NOV. 27, 2002 ( Sister Ruth Pfau is one of this year’s recipients of the Ramon Magsaysay Award, considered the “Asian Nobel prize,” for her service to Pakistani society.

“The commitment of a life directed to eradicating leprosy and the stigma the latter imposes in Pakistan, and other loving gifts to her adopted country” are the reason for awarding this 72-year-old missionary and religious of the Daughters of the Heart of Mary,” the Misna missionary agency reported.

The German-born religious, a physician, said: “For us, the control of leprosy has meant from the beginning to work to change the life of our patients, to help them recover their own dignity.”

“While we were concerned with the recovery of their health and dignity,” she added, “we found that we were also changing, being reinforced in our values and our identity, putting the person at the center of our concern.”

Forty years ago, destined for a mission station in India, Sister Pfau stopped along the way in Pakistan. In Karachi she felt a profound need to help those rejected by the city, many of whom were victims of Hansen’s disease, as leprosy is formally called.

Her congregation had a ramshackle leprosy dispensary in Karachi, which was inadequate given the needs. The missionary then set to work to reorganize the dispensary into a proper clinic. 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 Center (MALC, named after the founder of her congregation) to a proper hospital building, and established a full-service leprosy treatment and rehabilitation center, free to patients.

In 1968, with the support of the Pakistani government, Sister Pfau launched the National Leprosy Control Program. Soon she and her team began setting up leprosy-control centers across the country. The project included the training of volunteer male nurses. And Sister Pfau trained her staff to treat the person, not just the disease.

MALC is now housed in an eight-story building in Karachi. It administers 170 centers throughout Pakistan and employs 800 people. In 1996 the World Health Organization declared that Pakistan was the first country in Asia to bring leprosy under control.

Sister Pfau did not wish to confine or ostracize lepers, as was the practice in Pakistan at one time. “They were kept at a distance,” she said. “They had to hide in caves in the mountains or deserts.” In fact, in some tribal areas, they were killed.

“What we did was to go, house by house, to explain that leprosy is not contagious and that it can be cured with relative ease,” the missionary said.

She continued: “When I was young, I traveled many times in the company of male collaborators, and this was not all together accepted in a society rooted in Islamic principles.

“When I explained my religious state and my duty to respect three vows, one of them being chastity, I was admired for it. Muslims respect me, not only because I decided not to get married, but because of the impossibility of maternity, for them a supreme sacrifice.”

After leaving many of her centers in the hands of Pakistani collaborators — she is retired now — Sister Pfau has decided to stay in the country as a consultant to the government.

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