Albinism is a congenital disorder in which to some extent the production of the pigment called melanin is disrupted. Melanin is a specific substance, which affects the color of tissues. There is none or almost none pigment in albinos’ skin, hair and eyes.
According to statistics, one person in 20 thousand is born albino. The lack of pigment is particularly evident in races with dark skin color.
It is believed that more often albinism occurs among descendants of Indians and residents of Africa: in Nigeria one person in 3 thousand is born albino, and among inhabitants of Indian communities in Panama – one person in 132. The total number of albinos is approximately 1% of the total population of the planet.
The disease occurs in all races. Patients have to suffer sidelong glances because of their unusual appearance.
The cause of albinism is the disruption in the genes responsible for the synthesis of the tyrosine’s enzyme. It is responsible for the normal production of melanin, which provides color to skin, hair and other structures.
Depending on the amount of damage to the gene, disruption of the synthesis of melanin can vary from full block to small deviations. In some cases, the level of tyrosine in patients is normal. Other abnormalities in another gene are detected, and that gene might be responsible for the production of another enzyme, for example.
How Albinos Look
There are many types of albinism, each of which has its own characteristics. For example, there are isolated ocular-cutaneous albinism and ocular albinism, in which only eyes are affected. Because of the full melanin block patients have white skin and hair. They have translucent blue eyes that in the sunlight have a magenta tint. This effect is created by the blood vessels of the eyeball, shining through the translucent iris. Among eye pathologies in albinos strabismus, nystagmus, myopia and astigmatism are often detected.
Dangers That Albinos Might Face
Albinism is not just a different appearance. The absence or reduced concentration of melanin in the structures of the eye disrupts the normal development of the ocular system. This leads to the development strabismus and
progressive loss of vision among albino people. Common forms of strabismus can be successfully treated by surgical methods, but they have very low efficiency when we speak about albinism.
Melanin protects us from the damaging effects of ultraviolet radiation. Its absence deprives the skin structure and eyes of the needed protection. Albino people are prone to sunburn. They have a greatly increased risk of skin cancer. So they have to protect themselves carefully with sunscreen and sunglasses.
Quite often albinism affects the neighboring genes, leading to the development of various syndromes. So, Chediak—Higashi syndrome is a combination of albinism with congenital immunosuppression. Angelman syndrome is accompanied by a decrease in mental development, microcephaly, hypotension and ataxia.
In traditional societies like in African and island nations there is an ambivalent attitude towards albinos. For example, on the island of Fiji albinos are the object of special respect and hold a privileged position in the society. There is a special respect for albinos in India — in this country there is a whole cult of albinos.
Unfortunately, the situation in African countries is totally opposite: the existence of albinism is associated with various superstitions, and people with this illness often become outcasts.
In the United States there is an organization that defends the rights of albino people and it is called National Organization for Albinism and Hypopigmentation (NOAH). In several African countries, for example in Tanzania, there is a network of clinics, which provide advice to parents of children with albinism and provide medical assistance.