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What is Albinism ?

albinism. an albino childh looking at the camera


Many of us must have wondered what makes some people’s hair and skin that white. This is a disease known as “Albinism“.

Albinism occurs due to a genetic disorder that mainly affects hair, eyebrows, skin and eyes. Excluding eyes, these parts are generally whitish in these people.

Essentially, mutations in some genes that a child inherited from his/her parents are responsible for this disease. These inherited faulty genes disrupt the normal production of melanin in the body. 

Melanin is a pigment responsible for determining the hair, skin and eye colour of a person based on the genes inherited from the parents. That is also the reason why human hair turns white when the melanin production stops/slows for some reason ( for instance ageing) in the body.

Those who have these faulty genes are named albinos. What doctors say is that an albino’s body produces none or little amount of melanin. 

It is also important to note that albinism is not a contagious disease and anyone ( who has these faulty genes) from any race, ethnicity or gender can be born with this condition. 

Unfortunately, there is no specific treatment for albinism. However, some symptoms can be treated and thus the life quality of the person (albino) can increase accordingly. 

One might think that this is a genetic disorder that affects only humankind. However, the fact is that albinism can also affect animals, simply put, all vertebrates

albino crocodile

An albino Crocodile

In albinos – both human and animal – skin is fragile and whitish due to a lack of melanin. Therefore the skin is vulnerable to sunburn and skin cancer.

Besides, Albinos’ eyes can look pink or red due to pigment (melanin) deficiency.


Prevalence of Albinism

Actually, this is a rare disease, thereby, it is not a type of disease that we would encounter every day. Nevertheless, most of us must have seen so far at least one person ( Albino ) who has this genetic disorder.

As for the prevalence of this genetic disease; albinism is most common in sub-Saharan Africa. It is estimated that this disease is affecting 1 in 5000-15000 people in sub-Saharan Africa while this number is 1 in 17,000-20,000 in Europe and North America.


 Symptoms of Albinism

1- Skin 

One of the most distinct signs of albinism is a fair complexion. Even African-descent albinos would have a lighter and white skin colour. As mentioned above, why albinos’ hair, skin and eyebrows are generally white is related to insufficiency or absence of the pigment called melanin, in their body.

Apart from determining hair and skin colour, melanin also protects human skin against UV rays. Without this protection, the sun rays would damage human DNA and set the stage for skin cancer.

This is the issue for Albinos. The skin of an albino is susceptible to sunburns due to low ( or none ) pigment melanin levels in the skin. Therefore, skin protection is indispensable for albinos against UV rays.

Since albinos are vulnerable to UV rays, they are at a higher risk of developing skin cancer

Protection measures are; wearing sunscreen, sunglasses and hats. Furthermore, clothes designed to protect the skin from Ultraviolet rays can play an important role in skin protection.


2- Vision 

Yet another organ that this genetic disorder affects is the eyes. Therefore, nearly all albinos have vision problems. These vision problems stem from the underdevelopment of the retina in albinos. Furthermore, impaired vision makes the diagnosis of albinism easier.

Their eyes are sensitive to light and some of the albinos have very little vision. There are different types of albinism. Therefore, the vision level of an albino is somewhat related to the type of albinism the albino has. 

Even though vision problems can’t be cured completely, there are things that may increase the vision of albinos. Contact lenses and glasses are among the materials that could help. 

With the right education, albinos can learn many daily activities such as reading, fishing, and studying albeit they have impaired eyes.

Some of them can even complete high education and be successful in business life, despite the relatively weaker vision quality.


3- Hair  

We highlighted the role of melanin in the human body, at the beginning of the article. The amount of melanin available in the body determines eye, hair and skin colour. Since albinos have very scarce or no melanin in their body, it is quite normal that albinos to have white or rather blonde hair.

However, it may depend on the descent of the albino as well as the melanin level in the body. From time to time, hair colour can even be brown.