Everything You Don't Know About Vitiligo - It Affects People And Animals
What is vitiligo? If you've never heard of it before, you're not alone. Many people have never heard of this rare skin condition. Some of the people who are aware of the condition come to it through personal experience. Others have seen vitiligo models like Winnie Harlow, who uses her modeling career to educate the public on her condition
Vitiligo is characterized by patches of depigmented (lighter) skin and sometimes hair. While this usually does no physical damage, psychological problems may occur thanks to the stigma attached to the condition. Anyone can develop vitiligo - there's even vitiligo in animals. Keep reading to learn more vitiligo facts, and learn the answers to some important questions, such as, what causes vitiligo? and, is it the same thing as albinism?
Vitiligo May Be An Autoimmune DiseasePhoto: James Heilman, MD / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA 3.0
While the exact cause of vitiligo is unknown, many doctors and scientists believe that it is an autoimmune disease - meaning a disease where the immune system attacks part of the body as if it were a foreign object. In this case, the immune system attacks and destroys the melanocytes (pigment producing cells) in the skin. This may cause the patches of lighter skin that characterize the condition.
It Can Have A Psychological ImpactPhoto: leobenavente / flickr / CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0
Vitiligo can lead to loss of self-esteem, self-consciousness, and depression. This is primarily due to stigmatization and abuse that often impact those with vitiligo. Many people with vitiligo report being stared at, insulted, isolated, or otherwise treated poorly because of their appearance.
The situation is particularly bad for Indians with vitiligo. Despite its comparably minimal impact on the body, the first prime minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, ranked vitiligo alongside with malaria and leprosy. Things have changed since the first half of the 20th century, but people with vitiligo are still ostracized. Some Indian religious beliefs state that vitiligo is a punishment for wrongdoing in a past life. It's also extremely difficult for young women with vitiligo to get married, which is critically important in many parts of Indian society.
The psychological impact of vitiligo is dramatically affected by how the outside world reacts to it. Those who are supported and treated with respect are less likely to suffer mentally from their vitiligo.
It's Not Contagious
Vitiligo is thought to be an auto-immune disease where the immune system attacks melanin producing cells. It can be genetically inherited, or it can be caused by a trigger event, such as stress, or exposure to chemicals. It is not caused by a pathogen, and it isn't contagious. You cannot catch vitiligo from touching affected skin, through the air, or through any other method of contamination.
It Affects Animals Too
Vitiligo is even rarer in animals than it is in humans, but it does happen. When it does, there is no negative stigma that comes with it, but rather an adorable coat that is desired by many. In cats, it makes it shows up as a white cobweb or snowflake pattern on their coats, while dogs may have larger patches around their eyes or on their bodies.
There's no treatment for vitiligo in animals. However, because the condition is physically harmless and because unlike humans, animals don't really care what they look like, a treatment is considered unnecessary.
It's Not Deadly, But There Can Be Complications
Vitiligo is, generally speaking, relatively harmless. That said, there are some potential side effects that people with the condition need to be aware of. Vitiligo can increase one's risk of sunburn and skin cancer, and can also cause hearing loss and eye damage. To mitigate skin damage, it is recommended that people with vitiligo take special care to protect their skin with sunscreen that has SPF of at least 30.
There Can Be Issues With Racial IdentityPhoto: Constru-centro / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA 4.0
For people with dark skin, vitiligo can affect how others perceive their race. The most famous example of this phenomenon is Michael Jackson, who had vitiligo, and treated it by depigmenting his skin. As a result, many people began to doubt his identity as a Black man, and some even accused him of purposefully lightening his skin in order to appear white. This is in spite of Jackson's own words on the subject:
"I’m a Black American. I’m proud to be a Black American. I am proud of my race. I am proud of who I am. I have a lot of pride in who I am and dignity."
But this doesn't just happen to people who are under the media's scrutiny. Loretta Cooper endured similar attacks on her identity. After vitiligo stripped most of the pigment from her skin, she noticed a difference in how people perceived her. She could go anywhere that white people could go without being harassed, but she encountered resistance when she tried to enter Black communities. In an interview with ABC news, Cooper said:
"Sometimes I just want to put it on my forehead: I do belong here! It's OK for me to be here. I'm one of you! I look in the mirror, and I see beyond the color of my skin. I see the face of my mom, my great grandmother. I still am who I am in spite of how I look, and that's something that somebody can't take away from me, my experiences being an African-American woman."