Pakistan’s ‘elephant man’ forced to beg on Karachi streets

  • Muhammad Saleem, 53, suffers from hereditary lymphedema which has caused massive swelling in both his legs
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KARACHI – A 53-year-old Pakistani man suffering from a rare condition which has left him almost crippled, has been forced to beg in the streets of the Sindh capital.

Muhammad Saleem, who is also known as the ‘elephant man’ of Karachi, says he always wanted to live his life with dignity but he has been unable to work to feed his family.

The father-of-four man suffers from hereditary lymphedema which has caused both his legs to balloon, leaving him almost completely immobile. His feet have grown to a gigantic 23cm in circumference and his toes are 18cm.

He cannot stand for more than a couple of minutes and his wife Zainab Bibi has to help him walk and climb the stairs of their one-room rented house.

With no work or money for treatment, he is forced to depend on the help of others to make ends meet.

For last 17 years, Muhammad has been begging in Karachi.

“My legs are so heavy I gasp for breath while trying to move them. It has been more than 20 years that I have walked freely. There is nothing I can do on my own. I have not worn shoes in ages,” the resident of Sikandar Goth told the Mail Online.

Muhammad has had the condition since birth and it was passed onto him by his mother.

Doctors say there is no cure available. “They (the doctors) said the only way to stop infection from spreading is by amputating my legs. But my father refused to cut my legs,” Saleem said.

Hereditary lymphedema is a genetic developmental disorder affecting the lymphatic system. It is characterized by swelling (edema) of certain parts of the body.

Many researchers believe that hereditary lymphedema may result from changes (mutations) in one of the different disease genes (genetic heterogeneity).
Hereditary lymphedema affects females more often than males. The estimated prevalence of these disorders is 1 in 6,000 individuals within the general population.

There is no FDA approved medication to treat lymphedema. Risk reduction practices should be followed to reduce complications such as infection and an increase in swelling.

Still, the man says he has no regrets over his father’s decision as he still has legs and can walk even though with much difficulty. “I am thankful to him and Allah that he took the right decision. Although my legs cause me problems and pain but I still have legs to walk on my own.”

Saleem, who has previously worked at a textile factory in Karachi, says he “never wanted to beg”. “I have always wanted to live life with dignity but God had other plans. I have still not lose hope.”

Despite all the struggles, Muhammad still has hopes alive of walking freely like before. He hopes the government will come forward and help him with the treatment so he can lead a normal life.