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Albinos in Africa face more risks, deserve extra care to live long

Albinos in Africa live in fear of being murdered for their body parts, which are prized in witchcraft for use in charms and potions, but albinos face a much more pervasive threat: the sun.

With little or no melanin, the pigment that colours eyes, hair and skin, and protects the body from the harmful effects of the sun, most albinos in Africa die from skin cancer between the ages of 30 and 40, according to the United Nations.

“The number one killer of people with albinism is skin cancer, not machete attacks and ritual killings,” said Don Sawatzky, director of operations at Under the Same Sun (UtSS), a Canada-based charity that advocates for albinos.

In West African nations like Senegal, where attacks on its estimated albino population of 10,000 are rare, people with albinism are unaware of the danger posed by the sun or unable to find or afford sunscreen to protect themselves, activists say.

Out of nine pharmacies and shops in Dakar, four do not stock sunscreen. The others sold limited varieties costing at least 14 dollars. Last year, Dakar-based pharmaceutical company Valdafrique contacted the National Federation of Albinos of Senegal (FNAS) with the idea of producing Senegal’s first locally-made sunscreen — designed for people with albinism.

The company has made 5,000 bottles of sunscreen as samples to donate to albinos across Senegal, and the FNAS hopes the government will subsidise its cost to promote widespread use. “Even if the state doesn’t participate...every day there’s a need, we will make this product available,” Valdafrique’s head pharmacist, Madiagne Sakho, said.

Albinism affects between one in 5,000 and one in 15,000 people in sub-Saharan Africa, compared to about one in 20,000 people in Europe and North America. Attacks on albinos in Africa rose at the end of last year, linked to a growing demand from political hopefuls seeking good fortune, said the UN’s first human rights expert on albinism.

Yet skin cancer is a bigger threat for albinos in Africa, due to the burning sun and a lack of knowledge about how to protect against its harmful rays, said Ahmadou Aly Sall, a Senegalese albino who is the president of the FNAS.

“We met an albino child whose parents didn’t know that their child needed to protect himself against the sun,” said Sall, adding that the child later died of skin cancer.

Most albinos in Senegal rely on donations from overseas charities to get hold of sunscreen, but more must be done within the country to improve awareness about albinism, activists say.

Many albinos do not know what to wear to protect against the sun, or that they should be vigilant around midday when the sun is at its strongest, said Sall, who always goes out wearing a baseball cap, scarf and long sleeves to cover his skin. While people with albinism can receive free basic healthcare under Senegal’s universal healthcare programme, it does not cover the costly treatment required for skin cancer, he added. Back at Valdafrique, the firm said government subsidies would enable it to ship the locally-produced sunscreen to African nations as far away as Madagascar.

The health ministry said it had met albino activists and that it was considering the production of Senegalese sunscreen.

“The will is there,” said Mamadou Lamine Faty, head of the division for people living with disabilities in the ministry.

— Thomson Reuters Foundation