Demystifying health challenges: Vitiligo

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INTERVIEW: Alex (me) interviewing Opeilo at his desk in The Standard office. Credit: Doreen Kajeru

On July 27, Andrew Opeilo turned 20. Though he was admitted at Uganda Christian University (UCU) to pursue a degree in Law, he always dreamt of being a pilot or a flight engineer.

However, while in Primary Seven at Shimon Demonstration School, he contracted an illness that, from a distance, would make people mistake him for an albino.

After thorough examination by experts, Opeilo learnt that he had a rare skin illness known as vitiligo.

Dr. Gerald Ssekitoleko, a dermatologist at Mbarara Regional Referral Hospital, explained that the skin contains melanin, a pigment that gives the skin, hair and the colour of eyes.

The Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases estimates that about 0.5 to 1 percent of the world’s population has vitiligo.

Vitiligo is a disorder in which white patches of skin appear on different parts of the body.

This happens because the cells that make pigment (colour) in the skin are destroyed. These cells are called melanocytes.

“But if the melanocytes cannot form melanin or when their number decreases, the skin often becomes much lighter than the rest of the body, resulting in vitiligo,” he said.

Vitiligo may be an auto-immune disease. Such diseases happen when your immune system mistakenly attacks some part of your own body.

Researchers have also proven that injury, stress, traumatic events, or severe sunburns, may trigger vitiligo.

Many people develop it in their twenties, but it can occur at any age. The disorder affects all races and both sexes equally. However, it is more noticeable in people with dark skin.

Vitiligo causes disclouration in the skin’s upper dermis. Nonetheless, many people with vitiligo are healthy and have normal skin texture and sensation.

Opeilo joins colleagues for a group discussion at Uganda Christian University (UCU), Mukono

Opeilo joins colleagues for a group discussion at Uganda Christian University (UCU), Mukono. Credit: Alex Taremwa

Opeilo cites the late singer Michael Jackson’s skin disorder, saying he suffered from acute skin discolouration caused by vitiligo probably the reason he sought skin uniformity.

However, most people with vitiligo have no other auto-immune disease.

Vitiligo may also run in families. Children whose parents have the disorder are more likely to develop vitiligo.

However, some children will not get vitiligo even if a parent has it.

White patches on the skin are the main sign of vitiligo. These patches are more common in areas where the skin is exposed to the sun.

The patches may be on the hands, feet, arms, face, and lips. Other common areas for white patches are: the armpits and groin (where the leg meets the body) around the mouth, eyes, nostrils, navel, genitals, rectal areas.

The speed of the disease is intrinsic that there is no way to tell if vitiligo will spread. For some people, the white patches do not spread. But often the white patches will spread to other areas of the body.

For some people still, vitiligo spreads slowly, over many years. For other people, spreading occurs quickly.

Some people have reported more white patches after physical or emotional stress.

The choice of treatment depends on: the number of white patches, how widespread the patches are and the treatment the person prefers to use. Some treatments are not right for everyone. Many treatments can have unwanted side effects.

Treatments can take a long time, and sometimes they don’t work.

Opeilo, an aspiring lawyer has a fashion touch and great sense of humor. He is seen here posing for a photo after the interview. Credit: Alex Taremwa

Opeilo, an aspiring lawyer has a fashion touch and great sense of humor. He is seen here posing for a photo after the interview. Credit: Alex Taremwa

Current treatment options for vitiligo include medical, surgical, and other treatments. Most treatments however are aimed at restoring colour to the white patches of skin.

Medical treatments include: medicines (such as creams) that you put on the skin, ones that you take by mouth, a treatment that uses medicine plus ultraviolet A (UVA) light (PUVA), removing the colour from other areas so they match the white patches.

There are surgical treatments too such as skin grafts from a person’s own tissues. The doctor takes skin from one area of a patient’s body and attaches it to another area.

This is sometimes used for people with small patches of vitiligo and tattooing small areas of skin.

Other treatments include: Sunscreens, cosmetics, such as makeup or dye, to cover the white patches.

The main goal of treating vitiligo is to improve appearance. Some people with vitiligo have found that cosmetics that cover the white patches improve their appearance.

“People will look at you with curiosity but God has a plan and he doesn’t make mistakes. No one can define who I’m. It all comes down to knowing and loving oneself,” Opeilo said.

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