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Century on thousands still flock to legendary doctor's Gabon hospital

LAMBARENE, Gabon -- Deep in the African rainforest, the small town of Lambarene, Gabon, this weekend marks the arrival 100 years ago of Franco-German medical missionary Albert Schweitzer whose still existing hospital now struggles to survive in spite of its 20,000 patients annually.

Born in Alsace, then part of Germany, Schweitzer, a Lutheran, set foot on the mosquito-infested shores of the Ogooue river with his wife in 1913 in what was then one of the most isolated parts of France's colonial empire.

Today patients from all over Gabon are still being treated at the hospital he founded, a few meters away from the old corrugated structures where he practiced for more than 50 years.

“I am proud to head this hospital,” Antoine Nziengui told AFP. “We're among the few people in the world to work in a facility that is at the same time medical and humanitarian and also does research.”

Schweitzer, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1952, set up his first small hospital in an old corrugated henhouse, formerly owned by a nearby Protestant mission post.

Over the years the site developed into a proper hospital village where he worked until his death in 1965.

Schweitzer's belongings, including many letters and German-language bibles but also an organ which he played every day to be fit for fund-raising concerts in Europe, are kept at his former home, now a museum. His tomb overlooks the river.

Gabon has asked the United Nations Organization for Education, Science and Culture (UNESCO) to include the site in its World Heritage List, but some wonder what will become of the hospital which has become run-down and is lacking 21st-century equipment.

Funds raised by the hospital foundation and Gabon's annual subsidies of about 1.5 million euros are far from sufficient to run the hospital properly.

It does not provide magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and in spite of a high birth rate in the region has only four incubators that according to Doctor Nziengui “do not really work” as they should.

“The hospital should be run like a company ... We're treating patients even if they can't pay,” said Nziengui.

“It's good to have a social sensibility but it comes with a price.”

In 2009 a new hospital with state-of-the-art equipment opened on the other side of town, after President Ali Bongo Ondimba pushed for Lambarene to become a major medical center so that Schweitzer's legacy “will continue to shine.”

By the end of the year, authorities also hope to open an international clinical center that will carry Schweitzer's name and also do research into tropical diseases.

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