“There is need to educate Nigerians about vitiligo and this will decrease stigmatization and ultimately improve the self-esteem of the sufferers”
A student and a businesswoman’s experience
At a tender age, Carolina Omonye had a flair for the arts. She led her school to numerous victories in essay competitions and debates. But one day, she noticed a white patch on her hand which she ignored. It soon spread all through her hand to her neck. Afraid of people’s reaction, she resorted to wearing long sleeves shirts with turtle necks to hide the white patches. When it finally broke beside her eye and mouth regions, the young beauty realized it’s not everything one can hide in life.
“I was seriously praying that the patches would remain just on my hand when I was told I had vitiligo at the age of 16. I was soon going to the University of Lagos to study English. But when the white patches started spreading on my face, I began to lose confidence in myself.”
When her mouth started to grow white, she began to have a rethink about her choice of course. It was so bad that when she stepped out on stage for a debate or to give a speech, people will start laughing saying all sorts of things about everyone wanting to be famous in life, ‘even the ones with chronic eczema they cannot cure.” Discouraged and feeling overwhelmed, Omonye decided to do something else that wouldn’t put her on the spotlight.
While the challenges of vitiligo caused Carolina her dream course, it has caused others love. Adaeze Ugochukwu, for an instance. The 36-year-old businesswoman who runs a successful online fashion shop has been left heartbroken many times because men who meet her suddenly begin to avoid her because of her vitiligo. Ugochukwu told Saturday Sun that someone gave a man her number to call her because she wanted to match-make them. The man called her and they agreed to meet somewhere on a particular date but the meeting left her sad and depressed.
According to her, when the man arrived, he was surprised to see her. “As much as he tried to hide it, I could see he was uncomfortable because he kept starring at my skin. I asked him what he wanted to know about me, he said he was fine and didn’t have any questions for me. I just smiled.” Eventually, he left and didn’t call after then and she had to completely forget about him. Eventually when she met with the woman who had tried to match-make them she told her how furious the man was at her for wanting to hook him up with a sick woman.
Needless to say, she was crushed by that statement. She wasn’t sick, she just has a skin condition which is even treatable. She wondered if she could ever get a man who truly loves her to marry her with the way things are going. Some guys who pretended to be cool with her just wanted her money. “Amonth later, the man in question called and apologized for insulting me and asked to see me again but I told him I wasn’t interested in a guy like him and don’t want to see him again,” she said.
Health experts shed light on Vitiligo
According to Dr Ben Chukwuma, a Lagos-based dermatologist, Vitiligo is a skin condition in which areas of the skin lose their normal colour and appear white. These areas can be small or may progress to involve almost the whole body. He said the exact cause of the condition may not be known, it is strongly believed to be an autoimmune disorder in which the body’s own defence cells begin to harm the body’s own cells. There are many autoimmune disorders.
Chukwuma however noted that in the case of vitiligo, the melanocytes which are the cells in the skin responsible for colouring the skin are the ones attacked. Hence the areas affected lack normal skin colour and appear white. According to him, vitiligo can appear on any part of the body such as the face, chest region, leg and even the genital region. It can happen to anyone from any race and is estimated to affect about one to two per cent of the world population. Chukwuma stated that due to the limited knowledge people have about the condition, victims are always looked down on, insulted and discriminated against.
It is generally believed that the legendary pop singer, Michael Jackson, was perhaps the prominent person who made the skin condition popular. Michael was said to have suffered from the disease which generally replaced his black skin with white patches until he decided to go through some processes to change his complexion due to fear of stigma, the greatest fear of those living with the disease.
Aside the physical and emotional stress vitiligo puts its victims through, the financial burden is another aspect. If not tackled on time and with the right methods, the condition has a potential of spreading to virtually every part of the body.
What a person living with vitilgo must do
According to Dr. Gabriel Omonaiye, the first thing a person with vitiligo must do is to use a sunscreen regularly to protect the skin. He said: “There is no 100 per cent effective cure for vitiligo, but there are a number of treatment options that help re-colour or replace pigments to the affected area and hence improve its appearance. These options which should be discussed with the dermatologist include the use of some creams and sometimes tablets.”
Omonaiye stated that another option is the use of a special light called phototherapy on the affected parts. The third option will require a surgery such as transplanting normal skin to affected parts. Not all patients are suitable for this type of treatment and it is still under medical development. Although seeking medical solution is a good idea, the financial implication that comes with it is quite troubling, especially in a country like Nigeria.
Omonaiye said that treating vitiligo may drain the pocket as vitiligo is a big issue financially. The prescriptions are expensive. Just a small bottle of Meladinine cream costs about N6, 000. And all it does is just minimize the extent of the patches.
“At the same time, the cream is not something you can use for a long period. It could even burn your skin or lead to skin cancer,” he said. For those who don’t have the financial strength to tackle the disease, it can spread all through their body, causing skin damage and pain when walking under the sun.
According to Omonaiye, although the disease is said to be incurable, it is manageable. This is why people suffering from it need all the love, support and understanding they can get from people around to help them lead a decent life void of hate and discrimination. “There is need to educate Nigerians about vitiligo and this enlightenment will decrease stigmatization and ultimately improve the self-esteem of the sufferers,” Omonaiye said.