Understanding vitiligo

How much do you know about the disease that causes millions of people around the world to lose pigment in their skin? We take a closer look at vitiligo.

According to estimates by the Global Vitiligo Foundation, around 70 million people worldwide are living with vitiligo, and local reports suggest that at least 8% of the South African population is affected by it.

Confusion, stigma and misinformation surrounding vitiligo is rife, which only adds to the anguish and isolation experienced by those living with it. World Vitiligo Day on 25 June aims to shine a light on the condition and better understand its impact.

What is vitiligo?

Vitiligo (pronounced ‘vittle-eye-go’) is believed to be a genetic autoimmune disease that causes the body’s immune system to attack pigment-producing cells, known as melanocytes. The result is loss of pigment, which leaves irregular white spots or patches on the skin. For those predisposed to vitiligo, it can also be caused by stress or severe trauma to the skin.

Vitiligo often starts on the hands, feet or face and is usually progressive, meaning the affected areas will increase in size or distribution over time. It can also affect the eyes, inner ear, hair, eyelashes, eyebrows and mucous membranes (which line cavities of the body, such as your nose).

It’s important to know that vitiligo is absolutely not contagious.

Who gets vitiligo?

Anyone of any ethnicity, sex or race can get vitiligo – it’s simply more noticeable in people with darker skin tones. Reports suggest that 25–30% of those with vitiligo worldwide are children, and that the first signs of the disease are often noticed before the age of 20.  

Can vitiligo be cured?

While there is no cure for vitiligo, various types of treatment do exist to slow or stop its progression. These include prescription topical creams, medication and phototherapy, which uses ultraviolet rays to increase the number of melanocytes in affected areas and, as a result, repigment the skin.

Surgical treatment, usually in the form of skin grafting, is less common. In the case of extensive vitiligo, depigmentation – removing pigment from the remaining areas of skin using a bleaching procedure – may be an option.

Living with vitiligo

People with vitiligo often feel isolated, depressed and anxious, and report that the condition negatively affects their personal and professional relationships. They also tend to have low self-esteem as a result of living with a disease that is largely misunderstood and carries a lot of stigma.

Psychological impact aside, people with vitiligo may be at increased risk of developing other autoimmune diseases, including autoimmune thyroid disease, Type 1 diabetes, pernicious anaemia and Addison’s disease.

It’s also important that those with vitiligo protect their skin by using a high-SPF sunscreen, and avoid being in the sun for long periods of time. Sun exposure can darken the skin surrounding the areas that have lost pigment, which can make vitiligo appear worse.

Celebrating difference

As awareness of vitiligo grows, movements around the world are gaining momentum to help break the stigma of the disease.

Some major fashion brands, for example, have included models with vitiligo in their campaigns. Supermodel Winnie Harlow, an activist and spokesperson for vitiligo, has appeared in advertising campaigns for Fendi, Marc Jacobs, Tommy Hilfiger, Desigual, Diesel, Swarovski, Steve Madden, Nike, Puma, MAC and Victoria’s Secret.


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