This year the international charity Mercy Ships celebrates 50 years of taking medical services to some of the world's poorest people. Christen Pears visits its flagship in Sunderland.

FIFTY years ago, a luxury liner entered service, carrying wealthy passengers between Italy and the Orient. Today, her once-gleaming paintwork is peeling, and her once-immaculately maintained decks are scuffed and faded, but none of that matters because she's now a hospital ship, bringing health care and aid to some of the poorest parts of the globe.

The Anastasis is the flagship of Mercy Ships, an international charity founded in 1978 by American husband and wife team Don and Deyon Stephens. Although its mission is Christian, the charity serves people of all faiths, providing medical care, relief aid, and training for long-term, sustainable development.

In addition to the Anastasis, there are two other ships. The Africa Mercy joined the fleet in 1999. She is currently being converted in Hebburn from a rail ferry into a hospital ship, complete with six operating rooms and an 80-bed ward. The smaller Caribbean Mercy was acquired in 1994 and focuses on the Caribbean basin and Central America.

The Anastasis began life in 1953 as the Italian cruise liner the Victoria. Her sleek lines hark back to a more elegant age of travel and there are there are plenty of traces of her former life - wooden panelling on the walls, a grand, curved staircase - but her purpose has completely changed. The former first class cabins are now home to crew members, the lounges where passengers once sipped their cocktails have been converted into meeting rooms and school rooms.

But it is below decks that the change is most obvious. The Anastasis is the world's largest non-governmental hospital ship and this is where her medical facility is situated. There's a 40-bed ward, a dental clinic, a laboratory, an X-ray room and three operating theatres. Each one is cramped but fitted out with the latest equipment. One room is almost filled with a CT scanner. The machine is so large the wall had to be removed to fit it in.

Anastasis is the Greek word for resurrection. It refers not only to the resurrection of Christ but to the transformation the ship can make to the lives of the people who are treated on board.

Communications officer Susanne Eadelman says: "You really can change people's lives. When you have someone with a tumour or a cleft palette, it's about much more than just making them look pretty.

"If they have a tumour, for example, it can get so big it can end up suffocating them, but they are often looked on as cursed. Their families may abandon them. If they're a merchant, they can't sell their wares. They walk out a completely new person."

When the ship docks in a new port, the crew decamps to a large venue, usually a football stadium, and hundreds, sometimes thousands of people come to see whether they can be helped. Many queue for hours.

Much of the ship's work involves facial surgery - for tumours, cleft lips and palettes. The surgeons perform a lot of plastic surgery, often for burns or machete wounds. Cataract operations are also very common. They take only 30 minutes but can transform a patient's life by restoring their sight.

There is also an increasing amount of orthopaedic work, including corrective surgery for club feet, as well as surgery for women who have become incontinent during childbirth. These women are usually ostracised by their families.

"It's quite an easy thing to fix the hole in their bladders and most of them are accepted back into society afterwards. They're ususally so happy, we see them skipping down the gangway," says Susanne.

During the last 25 years, Mercy Ships has performed more than 12,000 operations and treated more than 220,000 people but it has also provided more than $30m of medical equipment and supplies, construction equipment, tools and seeds. The crew help build clinics and schools and teach about agriculture and sanitation.

Brian Finley, purser on the Anastasis, says: "It's a partnership and we work closely with the governments of the countries we visit, as well as all the local organisations.

"It's no good if we go in there being the big know-it-alls. We have to work with local people. For a start, they tell us which area we should be focusing on. We will go into one village and help them, teaching them skills so they can pass them on to everyone else."

Although Mercy Ships is a Christian charity, it treats people of all faiths.

Brian says: "We try to be sensitive and not force Christianity on anyone. But if we do these things we potentially open the door for a conversation about why we are leaving our homes and families to help people. They are often in awe of it but we can tell them that it's what Jesus taught us."

The Anastasis spends half of the year in Africa. This year, she will be working mainly in Sierra Leone, although there are plans to make an aid drop in war-torn Liberia.

The rest of the time is spent visiting ports across Europe, where the crew raise funds and take on new supplies. Members of the public can tour the ship in exchange for a donation.

For the last few weeks, she has been berthed in Sunderland. There is a constant stream of visitors. Among them is Debbie Abaya, an ardent fund-raiser for Mercy Ships.

Debbie first became aware of the charity when she visited the Anastasis in Newcastle two years ago. It was there she met her husband, Franck, an engineer from Togo who was serving on the ship.

The couple now live in Spennymoor and Franck is studying for English qualifications. Although he no longer works on the Anastasis, there's a strong possibility that he will return in the future and Debbie, a pharmacist, may join him.

She says: "I think the work the ship does is absolutely wonderful. Franck certainly found his time on board very fulfilling and I know he would like to go back.

'WE did talk about me going on with him after we got engaged but in the end we decided it would be best if Franck just went on his own. Now I think we're ready for it."

The crew is multi-national. There are around 380 people on board from 30 different countries. Short term volunteers can come on board for anything from two weeks up to a year, while others make a career with the charity.

There is a very strong sense of community on board. Living in such close proximity, everyone knows each other. Some of the crew are husband and wife teams and bring their children along with them. There is a school with around 30 pupils and a play area on the aft deck. Some children have spent all of their lives on their ship.

Brian says: "It's a pretty wonderful way to grow up. Some have gone away to college at 18 to train as doctors and then they've come back. It shows it's not just the lives of the people we treat who are changed."

*The Anastasis will be in Sunderland until September 28. For more information, visit the website or call 0870 321 6777.