While albinism is most perceptible among dark-skinned people, it is found among all nations, races, and peoples. It is estimated that albinism affects 1 out of every 20,000 persons.
The defective genes for albinism can be passed on for generations without any of its telltale signs being manifest.
Many attribute the word “albinism” to 17th century Portuguese explorers. As they sailed along the West Africa coast, they sighted both black-skinned and white-skinned people. Assuming these represented two different races, they called the black Negroes and the white albinos –Portuguese for “black” and “white” respectively.
For most light-skinned people, mild exposure to the sun results in a tan when a pigment called MELANIN is produced to protect the skin.
OCULOCUTANEOUS albinism is one of the most common types. Melanin is missing from the skin, hair, and eyes. How does this affect the skin? Without pigment, an albino’s skin is easily sunburned. Sunburn in itself is an unpleasant and painful condition.
However, albinos who do not sufficiently protect their skin also risk developing skin cancer. This is especially so in tropical areas.
Thus, the first line of defense for an albino is to protect the skin with suitable clothing. Another option is to wear sunscreen lotion if it is available. A lotion with a sun protection factor of at least 15 is best, and it should be liberally applied 30 minutes before sun exposure and every two hours thereafter.
Albinism can also affect the eyes in a variety of ways. Pigment in the iris normally screens sunlight from entering the eye, other than through the pupil.
However, an albino’s iris is nearly translucent, which allows stray light to pass through it and causes irritation. To counter this, many wear a cap, a visor, or UV protective sunglasses. Others opt for tinted contact lenses.
It is commonly thought that people with albinism have reddish eyes, but this is a misconception. Most albinos have irises tinted dull grey, brown, or blue. So, then, why do they appear to have red eyes? Facts About Albinism says: “Under certain lighting conditions, there is a reddish or violet hue reflected through the iris, which has very little pigment. This reddish reflection comes from the retina.
This effect might be compared with red-eye, the reddish reflection in the eyes that sometimes appears in photographs taken with a flash.
Abnormalities of the eye are common among albinos. One condition is alteration of the nerves connecting the retina to the brain. The result can be that the eyes do not synchronize properly, causing reduced depth perception. This condition is called STRABISMUS. Treatment may include use of sunglasses or corrective surgery.
NYSTAGMUS, an involuntary jittery movement of the eyes, can also result from albinism. This can lead to impaired vision, such as extreme nearsightedness or farsightedness. Glasses or contact lenses can sometime help the impaired vision, but they do not correct the underlying problem. Some have learned to reduce nystagmus while reading by placing a finger by the eye or by tilting the head.
SOME TYPES OF ALBINISM
The main categories of albinism include the following:
OCULOCUTANEOUS albinism. The pigment melanin is missing from the skin, the hair, and the eyes. There are about 20 varieties of this type.
OCULAR albinism. Its effects are limited to the eyes. The skin and the hair usually appear normal.
There are many other forms of albinism that are less well-known. For instance, one type is associated with HERMANSKY-PUDIAK syndrome [HPS]. Those with HPS have a tendency to bruise or bleed easily. There is a high concentration of this type of albinism in the Puerto Rican population, where the frequency is estimated to be 1 in 1,800 of the population.