Albinism is a condition in which an individual lacks their natural pigment in their skin which would give their skin its normal colour as well as hair and eyes (called melanin). As a result those with albinism – called albinos or more technically ‘albinoids’ – will experience very pale skin as well as pale often white hair and pale blue eyes or sometimes red or purple (this is due to the red retina being visible through the transparent iris).
Albinism occurs in all vertebrates including humans of course, and is caused by inherited recessive genes. Often diagnosis is achieved through genetic testing.
Albinism affects people from all backgrounds and ethnicities and occurs with a frequency of about one in 17,000.
Albinism is not in itself dangerous or a cause for concern, but it can lead to some secondary problems. For instance it is associated with a number of vision problems including photophobia (intolerance to light) and nystagmus (involuntary eye movement) due to the increased amount of light that passes through the iris into the retina. They might also experience general decreased visual acuity due to light scattering throughout the eye. At the same time albinos are also slightly more susceptible to burning and skin cancer. The reason for this is that their pale skin is less able to block ultraviolet radiation.
There is no treatment for albinism in general, but the related eye problems may need treatment through visual rehabilitation and potentially surgery. For instance nystagmus-damping surgery may be used. Contact lenses may be used in order to color the eye and to block the increased amount of light though these may be uncomfortable.
At the same time it is also important to protect the skin and to manage sun exposure with sun block and clothing.
Culture and Psychology
Unfortunately the main problem that may albino face is cultural and they may fall prey to discrimination, ridicule or even fear. This is more widespread in less developed countries, and in some parts of Africa for instance damaging beliefs about albinos has resulted in violence (it is believed for one that albino body parts are useful for witchcraft for instance).
In the West these problems are less widespread as society is generally more understanding and tolerant. It is of course important for parents of albino children to explain their condition to them, and also to reassure them. When viewed correctly albinism can be seen as a beautiful and unique difference rather than something unpleasant. If albinos want to minimize their visual impact then there are various options available such as hair dye, contacts and various makeups.