Albinism – Lack of Melanin Can Be Hazardous To Your Health

An albinistic woman in a canoe, Benin, Africa.
Image via Wikipedia

Black folks have had a long love/hate affair with melanin.  We have desired to crush it under our feet, to deny its existence, to cover it up with makeup or just languish in resignation as it followed us around our entire lives.  Or we have desired to brag about its super powers, set it up on a mighty pedestal, or write odes to the joy of its brown beauty and black strength!  Melanin, How I Love Thee!

While we wax philosophic and melodic about the beauty of melanin and how it’s way past time for us to fully embrace its wonderfulness,  did you know that there is so much more to melanin than its sultry, sexy and beautiful surface appearance?

Which brings me to the topic of this post: the condition of albinism in black people.  As we know, this is a condition in which the affected person has a lack of melanin in the skin, eyes and hair.  Albino people exist in every ethnicity, but their colorless skin stands out more in darker melanated races.   And depending on the culture in which they are born, albino people are treated in a range of ways: from exotics who are considered beautiful, to demons who are treated as accursed.

sourced from http://www.flickr.com/photos/endu...
Image via Wikipedia

African Albinos in particular are those people that we have seen from time to time and looked at out the corner of our eye.  We were fascinated and confused by their creamy yellowish or pinkish skin tones and their pale golden hair color and light eyes.  All we knew was that they looked white, but not really, and we did not know what else to make of our weak assessments. (Or should I say “I”)

Well here’s a little bit of the deal:  Albinism is a congenital disorder in which there is a defect or absence of an enzyme necessary for melanin production.   This happens because of recessive gene alleles in the affected person.  A person cannot get albinism unless both of his or her parents carry this recessive gene.  The parents can carry this gene and be unaffected by albinism themselves.

Albinism manifests itself in different ways.  There are four recognized major  “types” of albinism, and three lesser, and more rare and dangerous types.  The term “Oculocutaneous” is used as a descriptor because albinism is determined not only by skin color – (cutaneous) or lack thereof,  but also by visual acuity -(oculo) or lack thereof.

Types of albinism
The system for classifying types of albinism is based on which gene mutation caused the disorder and not on the visible signs of the disorder.   Most typess of albinism have features that differentiate them one from the other.  The following are types:

  • Oculocutaneous albinism.  Oculocutaneous albinism is caused by a mutation in one of four genes, and manifests itself in vision issues and skin issues–(ocular and cutaneous) and hair and eye color.
  •  Oculocutaneous albinism type 1 is caused by a mutation in a gene on chromosome 11. People with type 1 albinism have very white skin, white hair and blue eyes. Some people can begin to produce melanin in childhood and adolescence. Their hair may turn blond or brown. Their skin may  develop and ability to tan. Their  irises may also change color and become less translucent.
  • Oculocutaneous albinism type 2 is caused by a mutation in a gene on chromosome 15.  This albinism in found in Native Americans, Sub-Saharan Africans, and  African-Americans more often than in other races. Their hair may be auburn, red, ginger or yellow and their eyes may be tan or blue-gray. Their skin is white at birth.  In African people, the skin may be light brown, and in Asian or Northern European people, the skin is usually white.  The skin color of these people is usually close to their family’s coloring, just slightly lighter.  With sun exposure, these black albinos’ skin may develop freckles.
  • The rarer oculocutaneous albinism type 3 is caused by a gene mutation on chromosome 9 and occurs in black South Africans.  These people usually have reddish-brown skin, reddish or ginger hair, and brown eyes or hazel eyes.
  • Oculocutaneous albinism type 4, caused by a gene mutation on chromosome 5, is a rare form of the disorder with symptoms similar to type 2, and is the most common form among East Asian people.
  • X-linked ocular albinism. The cause of this albinism, which is almost exclusive to males, is a gene mutation on the X chromosome. People who have ocular albinism have the developmental and functional vision problems of albinism.  Their skin, hair and eye color are in the normal range most often, or slightly lighter than that of others in their family.
  • Hermansky-Pudlak syndrome. Hermansky-Pudlak syndrome is a rare albinism disorder caused by a mutation in one of at least eight genes associated with this syndrome. People with this disorder have signs and symptoms like those of oculocutaneous albinism, but they also develop lung and bowel diseases and a bleeding disorder.
  • Chediak-Higashi syndrome. Chediak-Higashi syndrome is a rare form of albinism that’s associated with a mutation in the LYST gene. Signs and symptoms are similar to those of oculocutaneous albinism. The hair is usually brown or blond with a silvery sheen, and the skin is usually creamy white to grayish. People with this syndrome have a defect with white blood cells that results in a susceptibility to infections.

Above excerpted from www.mayoclinic.com

So we learn quite a bit from the above excerpt.  But there is more.  Albino people usually have many medical conditions and problems with their eyes.  As it turns out, the presence of melanin is highly important in our eyes’ proper functioning.   When there is a lack of melanin, numerous things can go wrong with the person’s vision.

Development of the optical system is highly dependent on the presence of melanin, and with a lack or lesser amount of this pigment in albinistic individuals may lead to

  • Misrouting of the retinogeniculate projections, resulting in abnormal crossing of optic nerve fibres
  • Photophobia and decreased visual acuity due to light scattering within the eye
  • Reduced visual acuity due to foveal hypoplasia and possibly light-induced retinal damage

Eye conditions common in albinism include:

  • Nystagmus, irregular rapid movement of the eyes back and forth, or in circular motion.
  • Refractive errors such as myopia or hyperopia and especially astigmatism
  • Amblyopia, less visual acuity of the eyes due to poor transmission to the brain, often due to other conditions such as strabismus.
  • Optic nerve hypoplasia, improper full development of the optic nerve

above excerpted and edited. from Wikipedia

So we learn just how important our melanin truly is.   It seems to be right up there with the digestive system, the nervous system,  the respiratory system, and the rest.

And we thought it was just a surface thing.

13 Comments Add yours

  1. Amazing the things I find on your blog.

    In the Northwest Province of the Cameroons (my homeland), albinos are referred to as the mukala. In ancient times, the tribes of the Western Cameroons would throw them into the volcano of Mt. Buea as an offering to the gods.

    Today, the ritual still continues, except only the hair of the mukala is thrown into the volcano.

    1. Anna Renee says:

      We black folks have some rituals! Off the chain.
      I’ve just started doing my research on the cultural reasons for the way Africans in different countries treat albino people. So far I have only found politically loaded “exposes” which lends themselves to what Abagond calls the “Mighty Whitey” , and to which I’m adding “sydrome” .

      So with Mighty Whitey Syndrome, these stories about albinism in Tanzania and South Africa and other countries slant heavily towards the view of the obviously inherently wicked and ignorant blacks, who mistreat their fellow human beings and who need intervention by us gentle white folks. Let’s save the african albinos from the african people!

      Le Sigh! I can’t go there. These pieces are too slanted for me to work from and I will have to keep looking to get a less subjective version of the culture behind the treatment.

  2. So why do we not just call europeans albinos then?

    1. Anna Renee says:

      I think I’ll do more research about this. Technically, they are albinos because they produce less melanin, and that’s the criteria of albinism.

      I wonder if I can find unbiased research about the white aspects of white skin. How does the research categorizes this skin color? Because some very white skinned people dont look much different than some of these descriptions of albinism.

      More things to research! I stay online looking this stuff up—and I love it! Wish I could quit my job and do this instead for living. 😉

    2. LL says:

      Because they don’t suffer with albinism. Albinism involves more than just being white – there are a lot of different types of albinism, some with quite significant health problems. Plus there are white people who have albinism, so it is obvious that not ALL white people have albinism. It is somewhat rare.

      Just because you have pale skin it doesn’t mean you have no pigment – white people still have pigment in their skin, to varying degrees. Most white people, broadly speaking, tan or burn and then tan, except for those with the fairest skin tones who only burn. I have red hair and pale skin and I still freckle and have some colouring – for example the tops of my arms are darker than the bottom, and so on.

      Also just a heads up, that ‘albino’ isn’t seen as being politically correct – people with albinism refer to be referred to as having albinism but not being albino. I’m not entirely sure why, but I think it’s because ‘albino’ was used as an insulting or ‘othering’ word for them in some places.

      1. Anna Renee says:

        Thanks for your imput and the heads up! This condition is fascinating from its own perspective outside of the social issues.

      2. Ben says:

        Well i am albino and i think this political correctness is well intentioned. However an albino person is who i am. it is more than simply a genetic condition for me since it defines my interaction with society; much like you race does for you. Albinism, however it comes about (i.e. a genetice”disorder”), is more of a race for me more than anything. So I for one prefer “albino” rather than “person with albinism”. I am albino like you would say i am black or white.

        1. Anna Renee says:

          Thanks Ben for sharing as an albino person.

          1. Rodney Mathis says:

            I don’t know if anyone is still following this or not but I happened upon it so I guess someone else might as well. I am not any kind of doctor or specialist, but I am a human being that has sought to weed through opinions, historical fallacies, myths and tried to find what the truth is. I believe one of the biggest myths perpetrated on humanity has been that of race and its connection to skin color. The language we use, which has grown out of our adoption of the concept of race, renders our conversations, even about a clear medical condition such as albinism replete with misinformation. Its not any individual person’s fault.
            Scientific studies as well as social and historic research has shown that the concept of race is not based in sound science but in pseudo-science influenced by greed, politics, economics and imperialism among other things. There is no “black” race nor “white” race. There are human families who reproduce after there own kind just like the animal families that reproduce after their kind. We have done the human race a grave disservice by trying to describe the complexity of our skin tones with these descriptors (which, as we see them, are not single absolute states but are varied wavelengths of reflected light that our human eyes are equipped to perceive. We don’t see objects. We see particular wavelengths of light reflected from them. Our brains identify the information as colors and shapes. Other creatures see different wavelengths and thus perceive colors differently. There is no one objective color for anything.) Yet we have built worlds (internal and external) around this idea of race/skin color as though it was absolute truth. Obviously people have died over the ideas we’ve associated with something that isn’t even real.
            Even the gentleman who nobly identifies himself as “albino” as opposed to being a person with albinism, misses the mark. It’s easy to understand that a person with albinism doesn’t want a genetic condition to become a label all too quickly used to identify them as a PERSON, when it has less to do with them as a person than the millions of other things that make them who they are. Just like to word “leper” or “cripple” are used as an identifier of “who people are”, when leprosy or a crippling condition is only something a person has, just like other things that other persons have, whether good or bad. He actually confesses and openly embraces the madness by saying “it defines my interaction with society; much like your race does for you.” I think his spirit is noble and courageous but his understanding of what should define him and how he relates to other human beings, based on his words, is off. I say all these things knowing that if what I’m saying is true and it were embraced as such, there would be a paradigm shift like none our generation has ever seen. There would be another civil war, but it wouldn’t be the North against the South or “blacks” against “whites”. It would be those who want the truth against those who love the lie.

  3. hey i am megha from jaipur raj. my skin colour is very dark plz advice me change my skin colour treatment

    1. Anna Renee says:

      Your dark color is a gift of God. Please appreciate and accept it, and dont listen to those who would have you despise yourself.

  4. swati trivedi says:

    Sir. , I have black spots on my face only. How can I remove it? Please give me some suggestions. Thank you.

  5. Cindy says:

    Some people will say ‘I escaped being an albino’ I have golden hairs all over my body except for my hair which is light brown nd my eyes dark brown…. To be honest I hate it wen people say that… Or they say something like ‘her fairness is red’ I surfed the internet 4 red albinism but nothing really beneficial showed up….. Why am I saying all this? I probably need closure and finally accepting who I am….

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