West Houston Dermatology

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Vitiligo: Beyond the Medical Side

If you have vitiligo, you know what the skin condition is, but the problem is that many other people have no idea what vitiligo is and assume that the patches of depigmented skin on a person’s hands, face, or other areas of the body are a communicable disease.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Vitiligo is an autoimmune disease where the patient’s own immune system views melanocytes (the cells that pigment the skin giving it color) as an invader such as bacteria, fungus or a virus.  This attack causes the immune system to kill off the melanocytes, thereby robbing certain areas of the skin of pigmentation.  This skin condition occurs in about one to two percent of the world’s population.  When vitiligo occurs in Caucasian patients, there is less contrast between the unaffected skin and the lesions.  However, African Americans and Indians seem to have the greatest trouble due to the numbers of people of this ethnicity with the disease and the natural pigmentation of their skin, which is darker.  In 2001 The New York Times published a wonderful, informative article about various patients’ social experiences with vitiligo beyond the medical component.  Though the depigmented lesions do not cause pain, itching or other physical symptom, uninformed and ill-mannered people can cause emotional pain for those with this disease.  An elementary school patient reported that she had been called “cow,” “spot” and asked if she had rolled in the mud like a pig.  Though it’s not unusual for children to be taught compassion for others while growing up, it is quite unacceptable for adults to behave as children or intentionally discriminate against a person because of a medical condition.  Even though the late Michael Jackson had vitiligo, not even his worldwide fame could remove the stigma some suffer.  In India, discrimination against those with vitiligo can be quite harsh.  If a patient develops the condition before marriage, it can be difficult to arrange a marriage, and if the condition develops after marriage, it can be an excuse for divorce.  If we have learned one thing as a society, it is that a person ought not be judged by his/her substance, and not the color (or colors) or his/her skin.  Stephen Mahoney, M.D. of West Houston Dermatology Laser & Skincare Center is a Houston and nationally recognized expert in treating vitiligo in adults and children.