Albinism, which is common and yet grossly misunderstood, is an inherited condition where a person lacks pigmentation, or is unable to produce normal colouring of the skin, hair and eyes.
In some cases, this condition can be limited to the eye or affects the eye and the skin. Albinism is caused by defects in the hereditary material determining a person's skin colour.
Carrier parents of normal pigmentation can pass their defective skin colour information onto their children who could be born with albinism.
Signs and symptoms of albinism are:
l Light brown to pale blue-coloured eyes;
l Sensitivity to the sun, or a related sub-condition known as photophobia;
l A rapid involuntary back and forth movement of the eyes, which improves with age, also known as nystagmus;
l Squinting, or a condition called strabismus;
And visual impairment and low vision.
The skin of a person with albinism is usually light and pale in colour. It has freckles or pigmented patches, which might develop on sun-exposed areas, a condition known scientifically as Ephelides, or their skin is usually sensitive to the sun, or burns easily.
The hair colour of a person with albinism can be white, yellow, light brown to reddish and their eye-lashes and brows can be yellowish, whiteish to light brown in colour.
Countless, dangerous myths and superstitions surround albinism. People with albinism are erroneously said to vanish at death. They are also said to be products of a curse or punishment meted out to the parents by the gods or ancestors.
They are also falsely thought to be dumb. In some communities children are encouraged to spit into their shirts at the sight of a child or adult with albinism.
In other communities, especially in Africa, it is thought that having sex with a woman with albinism will cure a man of the HIV-Aids virus. Many women with albinism in the area have therefore been raped. It is also thought that:
l People with albinism are cursed, and therefore degraded;
l People with albinism have magical powers, or are able to tell the future;
l People with albinism live a short life, which is a gross lie;
l People with albinism are retarded or deaf.
To quash the myths and superstitions, the Albinism Society of South Africa (Assa) is leading a highly-publicised national campaign to highlight albinism as a manageable condition.
Part of their message to parents of children with albinism is that they should not feel guilty as it is not their fault.
Assa officials cooperate with social workers and health department officials to counsel parents of children with albinism. Most of the parents shun the public glare, especially when infants with albinism may seem slower at first because of the visual problems, with which they later learn to cope.
The society is also heightening the public understanding and community awareness and education of albinism by running the National Schools Essay Competition on Albinism together with Sowetan, the Aggrey Klaaste Nation Building Foundation, Development Bank of Southern Africa and the nine provincial education departments.