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I wasn't burnt by acid, I have a skin colour disorder

 I wasn't burnt by acid, I have vitiligo (Photo: Elizabeth M)

Elizabeth Mwikali was 14 years old when she noticed a conspicuous patch on her face. 

However, she didn’t pay much attention to it since she assumed that it was something that would soon disappear.

But the patches kept increasing in number, attracting her mother’s attention.

Elizabeth’s elder sister had experienced the same symptoms and she had long been diagnosed with vitiligo so their mother knew exactly what the problem was, even before diagnosis. 

After a few months when the patches were all over her face, they finally saw a doctor, who confirmed their suspicions. 

According to Dr Roop Saini, a Consultant Dermatologist at the Kenyatta National Hospital, vitiligo is a long-standing condition in which a certain area of the skin loses its natural pigment (melanin) and begins to appear as white or pale pink.

According to Dr Saini, the condition is believed to be an autoimmune condition, this means that our body’s own immune system starts to destroy the cells that hold pigment called melanocytes causing loss of skin colour in that area.

Global Vitiligo Foundation states that 70 million people across the globe have vitiligo this means that nearly 1 per cent of the population throughout the world is affected and 20-35 per cent of patients are children.

In Kenya, the Vitiligo Society of Kenya estimates that there are about 1 million people living with this skin condition in the country.

Dr Saini explains that the major causes of this autoimmune skin condition range from a genetic basis, which means that approximately half the people living with vitiligo have a family member with the vitiligo.

Other causes include different types of skin injury such as repeated trauma, cuts and burns.

“Usually, the patch of vitiligo appears suddenly on the skin and frequently has no other symptoms -- no pain or burning sensation. Some people may report mild itching immediately before developing a new patch of vitiligo or sensitivity when exposed to the sun,” says Dr Saini.

According to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), the most noticeable sign of vitiligo is one or more areas of lighter skin but for many people that’s the only sign. However, other signs can develop like eye colour changes, hair turning white or hearing loss.

“This skin disorder can occur in people of any race but it’s most noticeable among people with darker skin because the contrast between normal skin tone and the white patches affected by vitiligo is more pronounced,” notes the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS).

According to AAD, people with vitiligo battle emotional challenges such as feeling embarrassed about the way their skin looks. They can develop low self-esteem which can cause anxiety or depression and make them isolate themselves.

When she was in primary school, her friends kept asking her questions about the way she looked. This lowered her self-esteem so she avoided crowded places. 

Eventually, when the white patches spread from her face to her face and hands, she changed her dressing style. 

“I started masking my body with clothing. For example, I would wear a jumper that covered my neck and wear a cap so that people would not easily notice the patches on my face, “ Elizabeth says.

“Because I had not accepted the condition, one of my relatives encouraged me that many people who have the same condition are great people who are making it in life,” she says. 

“They gave an example to a Canadian model, Winnie Harlow who is my role model to date. This gave me hope and killed the fear and shame, “ she says.

“I have lived with vitiligo for nine years now and I don’t see much difference between myself and other people who don’t have this condition. I see myself as any other ordinary girl out there, “ she says. 

“Vitiligo is not painful, not contagious, not an infection, not a curse and neither were we burnt with acid or scalded with hot water. And we do not have albinism as some people think. We just have vitiligo,” Elizabeth says.

Eunice Moraa, a clinical medicine officer in Nakuru observes that having vitiligo is normal but learning to accept the condition may be an arduous journey so it’s a call for every person living with the condition to accept and move on.

“Vitiligo it’s a lifetime condition that calls for self-acceptance and support for family members and the community at large,” observes James Laban, the executive secretary of the Vitiligo Society Of Kenya.

“To date, there is no known way to prevent the onset of Vitiligo. However, living a healthy lifestyle is always strongly recommended and certain measures are also important to prevent the worsening of symptoms including sun avoidance, sun protection by applying sunscreen, wearing protective clothing and avoiding injury to the skin (cuts, scratches, burns and tattoos), “explains Dr Saini.

He says that although there is no cure for vitiligo yet, several treatment options work by stimulating the skin to reproduce the lost pigment.

“The good news is that almost all the treatments that are available in Europe/USA are also available in Kenya. Just a simple review by a dermatologist will ensure that treatment is initiated promptly and this will maximise the chances of full re-pigmentation of the skin,” Dr Saini says.

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