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Vitiligo: Understanding the Misunderstood

Charles is currently a medical student at the University of Ilorin, Kwara State. Nigeria. He is an avid reader and passionate writer.

Lee Thomas is the author of the book Turning White: A Memoir of Change (a book which highlights his mental and emotional struggles with Vitiligo).

Lee Thomas is the author of the book Turning White: A Memoir of Change (a book which highlights his mental and emotional struggles with Vitiligo).

In recent years, cases of vitiligo have been on the increase and with a growing population of people who don’t seem to grasp this condition there have been instances of stigmatization. To abate this trend, there is a need for an education of the general public.

What is Vitiligo?

Vitiligo is a skin condition that results from a variant of causes, mostly as a result of an auto-immune disease in which more and more melanocytes (melanin producing cells) are being marked as foreign bodies and attacked by the body’s immune system, and as a result there are blotches of white patches on the patient’s skin due to loss of this pigmentation.

In some patients this condition becomes visibly evident early in childhood and usually lasts a lifetime.

Other causes of vitiligo include:

  • Neurogenic factors: In which certain neurotoxins released which could be as a result of stress on the individual kills the melanocytes.
  • Genetic Factors: There’s a reasonable chance that vitiligo runs in family bloodlines and so there is an increased probability that a patient had gotten it from his/her predecessors.

Types of Vitiligo:

Vitiligo is differentiated based on the location and size of the macula

  • Generalized Vitiligo: This is characterized by the scattered distribution of macula around the body.
  • Segmental Vitiligo: This type is characterized by the restriction of macula in one area.
  • Universal Vitiligo: This is the rarest form in which about 80% of the body of the individual is depigmented.
  • Mucosal Vitiligo: This is so called because the depigmented skin are in areas of the mouth and genitals.
  • Trichome Vitiligo: This is the type in which the vitiligo has three shades; a depigmented center, an hypopigmented intermediate and an unaffected zone of peripheral skin.
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Diagnosis of Vitiligo

Use of a special UV lamp: This is used to reveal depigmented areas of skin in races like the white in which the symptom of depigmentation is not easily noticeable.

Skin Biopsy: In which a portion of the skin is taken for examination of missing melanocytes.

Does Vitiligo only affect blacks?

Well, contrary to most people’s belief vitiligo isn’t racist. It is more visibly evident on blacks compared to whites.

Is Vitiligo painful?

It isn’t necessarily painful but patients are known to experience sun-burn in areas that have lost their pigmentation. And so, patients are duly advised to take measures such as

  • Wearing protective body coverings
  • Not going out during times when the sun is at high intensity. And also,
  • Making use of sunscreens to protect their eyes as people with vitiligo have reported cases of inflamed retina but vision is not usually impaired.
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Is Vitiligo fatal?

At this point, it is important to reiterate the need for people to understand that vitiligo doesn't have to change a lot for an individual. It isn’t life-threatening but life altering and is not contagious either.

Is Vitiligo curable?

Vitiligo isn’t curable but is in fact manageable. Medical treatments have evolved to give patients an even/uniform skin tone through the processes of

  • Repigmentation: In which the dermatologist aims in restoring colour to areas that have lost pigmentation.
  • Depigmentation/Skin lightening/Bleaching: In which the dermatologist aims in eliminating the remaining colour all in a bid to obtain a uniform skin tone.
  • Skin Graft Surgeries
  • UV light therapies are also instrumental in achieving this

Social challenges associated with Vitiligo

Depression and Low self-esteem: Studies have shown that a lot of people with vitiligo usually find it difficult in coping with this condition as some especially in East Africa recount how hard they are stared upon and called all sorts of derogatory names.

In India they are referred to as people living with ‘white leprosy’ .This has caused a great population of them fall into depression, have low self-esteem and develop anxiety. There are also sadly, cases of people who committed suicide because of their inability in dealing with the psychosocial pressure.

Ways of mitigating the stigma include:

  • Mental Support: As it is said that Vitiligo poses more of a mental challenge than a cosmetic one. There is a need for people living with these condition to join existing networks of support system so as to help them attain psychological and social stability.
  • Health education and sensitization: In order to curb this stigma, it is only right that more and more people become educated and aware of this condition. This would help people realize that this is only a medical condition and not a spiritual one. It would also help them understand that the condition is not contagious and there will be no need for avoiding people living with this condition.

Some celebrities you didn’t know have/had this condition include Winnie Harlow, Late Michael Jackson, Leleti Khumalo from the 1992 Sarafina movie and others.



Winnie Harlow is a well-known celebrity model

Winnie Harlow is a well-known celebrity model

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

© 2022 Olamide Charles

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