The Vitiligo Dilemma

Vitiligo (Photo credit: Curezone)
Vitiligo (Photo credit: Curezone)
Vitiligo     (Photo credit:     Curezone)
Vitiligo (Photo credit: Curezone)

He used to be a well-tanned, good-looking young man who gets the looks;  you know what I mean? His good physique also added to his macho image and girls were always sending him inviting smiles.  But come age 30, he started having those white patches on his skin, beginning with his hands and face. 

As a part-time college professor, it was inevitable that his students look at him all of the time while having their class.  He has become so conscious and so irritated with seeing people look at him twice or thrice, head to foot.   The more down-to-earth ones would directly ask him, “what’s wrong with you, sir?”

Yes… what’s “wrong” with him?

Well, nothing is “wrong” with him.  He just have VITILIGO!  The very same skin disorder that the legendary Michael Jackson was also diagnosed with in the mid-70s,  a  time when Vitiligo treatments were still being developed and the awareness of the disease was not common then.   So, the only solution for MJ then was to cover it up using cosmetics.

Statistics tell us that about 0.5 to 1 percent of the world’s population, or as many as 65 million people, have vitiligo, affecting both sexes and all races equally, but that it is more noticeable in people with dark skin.  In the US alone, 1 to 2 million people were found to have vitiligo, wherein some of them  started having it before the of age 20 and most of them developed it before their 40th birthday.

Depigmentation of patches of skin usually occur on the extremities, particularly noticeable around body orifices like the mouth, eyes, nostrils, genitalia and umbilicus, initially small and  often enlarges and changes shape.   Skin lesions  occur more prominently on the face, hands and wrists and some have hyperpigmentation  around the edges as shown on the picture above.

What vitiligo is and what causes it:

Vitiligo  is a pigmentation disorder in which the cells that make pigment (called melanocytes) in the skin are destroyed, resulting to white patches appearing on the skin in different parts of the body.   Likewise, similar patches also appear on both the mucous membranes, those tissues that line the inside of the mouth and nose;  and the retina  of the eyeball.   It is also not unusual that the hair which grows on  affected areas  sometimes turn white, too.

There are several different theories on the cause:

  •  that it is hereditary; people with vitiligo inherit a group of three genes  which makes them vulnerable to depigmentations
  • that  depigmentation occurs because vitiligo is an autoimmune disease;  meaning, a person’s immune system reacts against the body’s own organs or tissues.  Cytokines are proteins produced by the body which  alter their pigment-producing cells and cause these cells to die on the onset of vitiligo
  •  People’s bodies produce proteins called cytokines that, in vitiligo, alter their pigment-producing cells and cause these cells to die
  • that melanocytes destroy themselves
  • that a single event such as sunburn or emotional distress triggers vitiligo

 Vitiligo was found to be more common in people with various autoimmune diseases like:

  • Hyperthyroidism – having an overactive thyroid gland
  • Adrenocortical  insufficiency –  when the adrenal gland does not produce sufficient  hormone called corticosteroid
  • Alopecia Areata – patches of thinning hair or baldness
  • Pernicious Anemia – a low level of red blood cells caused by the failure of the body to absorb vitamin B12

However, so far, no association has been found yet between vitiligo and the autoimmune diseases enumerated above.  Most people with vitiligo have no other autoimmune disease, so it doesn’t follow that having autoimmune diseases causes vitiligo.  Many doctors believe that it can be caused by defects in many genes, but no significant proof or evidence has already been laid down.

Studies show that vitiligo may also be hereditary because it was found to run in families, as evidenced by 30 percent of people with vitiligo having a family member with the same disease. However, only 5 to 7 percent of children were found to have  vitiligo even if a parent has it, and most people with vitiligo do not have a family history of such.

Is it a deadly disease?

No, it’s not; nor is it physically harmful. Vitiligo just causes skin de-pigmentation in the shape of patches, and may tend to broaden as years go by. While some people suspect it to be a pre-cancerous condition, records show it is not true. There are already varied treatment options which  can help regain  lost pigment.

The worse thing that happens is with those patients who are stigmatized for their condition and  experiences depression and similar mood disorders.  Now, that is the more urgent concern for family members; hence, it is advised that information about vitiligo is understood and well-disseminated to family members to avoid  possible emotional and social setbacks in patients with vitiligo.



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