Albinism in humans (from the Latin albus, “white”, also called achromia, achromasia, or achromatosis)
is a congenital disorder characterized by the complete or partial absence of pigment in the skin, hair and eyes due to absence or defect of tyrosinase, a copper-containing enzyme involved in the production of melanin. It is the opposite of melanism. Unlike humans, other animals have multiple pigments and for these, albinism is considered to be a hereditary condition characterised by the absence of melanin in particular, in the eyes, skin, hair, scales, feathers or cuticle.
When an individual inherits recessive gene alleles, albinism may result. An allele is one of two or even more versions of a particular gene. Those affected by albinism may also experience vision defects, higher susceptibility to sunburn and skin damage due to UV rays, and dampened immune systems. It’s estimated that approximately one person out of 17,000 suffer from albinism in the USA, and it affects all races and ethnic backgrounds. However, it’s most prevalent in people of sub-Saharan African descent.
There are a number of different types of albinism, ranging in severity and documented symptoms;
Skin: the most obvious symptom of albinism is a lighter skin tone. However, skin tone does not always differ substantially. Levels of melanin may slowly increase in some individuals, slowly darkening their skin tone as they age.After exposure to the sun, some people with albinism may develop freckles, moles (generally pink in color due to the reduced quantities of pigment) and large freckle-like spots called lentigines
Hair: as with skin, the hair can range in color from white to brown. Those of African or Asian descent tend to have yellow, brown or reddish hair. As the individual ages, their hair color may slowly darken
Eye color: this can also change with age and varies from very light blue to brown. The low levels of melanin in the iris mean that it can appear slightly translucent and, in certain light, appear red or pink as the light is reflected off the retina at the back of the eye.
The lack of pigment prevents the iris from fully blocking sunlight; this makes people with albinism sensitive to light (photosensitive)
Vision: vision is always affected by albinism.
Fast facts on albinismHere are some key points about albinism. More detail and supporting information is in the main article.
- Albinism is also known as achromia, achromasia and achromatosis
- There is no cure for albinism, but some symptoms can be treated
- Albinism is a genetic disorder
- Primarily, albinism affects the hair, eyes, skin and vision
- Symptoms can include extreme nearsightedness, farsightedness and photophobia
- The most common cause of albinism is an interruption in the functioning of the enzyme tyrosinase
- An estimated 1 in 70 people carry the genes associated with albinism
- With albinism comes an increased risk of sunburn and skin cancer
- Often, the most serious challenge facing people with albinism is social stigma
- Individuals with albinism in sub-Saharan Africa face the most serious societal hardships.
Among the dead: a seven-month-old baby, a cassava farmer with two children, and a child murdered by his own father, according to BBC. The brutal killings — 40 since 2007 — are fueled by rumors that albino blood, skin, and hair have magical powers. People are actually weaving albino hair into their fishing nets and fashioning amulets with albino body parts, hoping that these devices will bring them riches, The Times reports in a story profiling Canadian albino Peter Ash, founder of Under the Same Sun, an albinism advocacy organization aimed at shaming the Tanzanian government into stopping the murders.
Most disturbing is that ritualists in Africa have turned albinos into wild animals, hunted for their body parts which are prized sources of potions in traditional medicine. In 2008, Vicky Ntetema a former BBC journalist from Tanzania published a report which revealed the use of albino parts in witchcraft and rituals. People selling the body parts of albinos have been arrested in several African countries, with Tanzania recording the highest number of albino murders. There are reports in the southeastern parts of Africa of many albinos, children especially, disappearing without trace, apparently prey to kidnappers. In some rare cases culprits have been sentenced to death for killing albinos in Tanzania, Kenya and other parts of Africa.
“It is completely unacceptable for humans to sacrifice other human beings. It comes from ignorance. Albinos are born, they grow up just like everyone else. It is unacceptable to attack them. Just like every human, albinos need to be loved, and seen as normal people; black people with white skin. I am proud to be an albino and I am proud to be who I am.
There are reports in the southeastern parts of Africa of many albinos, children especially, disappearing without trace, apparently prey to kidnappers.