Albinism is a condition that affects the pigment (colour) of the skin, hair and eyes. This pigment is called melanin.
In albinism, the melanin is either less or absent altogether. This results in light-coloured skin, hair and/or eyes.
There are two broad types of albinism: that which affects the skin, hair and eyes, and the one that affects the eyes only.
How does albinism occur?
Albinism is an inherited condition, which means that you get the condition from your parents. Both parents have to have the defective gene that causes the problem.
Can the condition lead to death?
Albinism does not cause death, and those living with albinism have a normal life span. The lack of melanin results in poor vision and increased risk of skin cancer, but does not generally affect other systems or organs.
What are the symptoms of albinism?
In general, albinism is characterised by reduced or lack of pigmentation of the skin, hair and the eyes.
The skin, hair and eyes appear white. In addition to colour change, there is sensitivity to light (photophobia), reduced vision and irregular rapid eye movements (nystagmus) may also occur.
How is it diagnosed?
Based on the physical signs such as the colour of hair and/or the eyes, a probable diagnosis can be arrived at.Tests to confirm an albinism diagnosis include analysis of hair, genetic testing and taking skin samples in a procedure known as biopsy.
These tests may be expensive and unavailable and it is for this reason that they are not done routinely for screening, but rather mostly in suspected cases.
Is there treatment for the condition?
There is no cure for albinism. Treatment is aimed at improving the poor vision and protecting the skin from the adverse effects of the sun.
Specific treatment depends on the impairment but general measures include:
Correction of poor vision using eye glasses and contact lenses
Tinting eye glasses to reduce amount of light to the eyes
Avoiding excessive exposure to the sun by covering up, wearing a hat and applying sunscreen creams.
MYTHS AND FACTS ABOUT ALBINISM
There is a lot of stigma associated with albinism, and this is due to a lack of proper understanding of the condition, as well as due to the various myths that exist.
Let’s set a couple of them straight:
1. Myth: People with albinism are blind and deaf
Fact: These people have reduced or poor vision. Total blindness and deafness are not specifically associated with albinism.
2. Myth: Albinism leads to mental retardation.
Fact: Albinism does NOT cause mental retardation or slow mental development in children.
3.Myth: People with albinism cannot have children.
Fact: Albinism does NOT affect the reproductive system, and thus people with the condition have normal reproductive capability.
4.Myth: Albinism is caused by inbreeding (having children with a relative).
Fact: Albinism is an inherited genetic condition and has nothing to do with inbreeding.
5. Myth: People with albinism are cursed or have magical powers.
Fact: This myth has resulted not only in social stigma, but in crimes against people with the condition and human rights violations in many countries.Such violations include rape (to cure HIV), murder (body parts used for witchcraft), abandoning of children, etc. People with albinism have no magical powers.
6. Myth: Albinism is contagious
Fact: Albinism is NOT contagious; it is an inherited genetic condition.
Dr Rose Kiura….