Hats off to Tanzania Albinism Project

In Tanzania, where some of the oldest human fossils have been found, and where Mt. Kilimanjaro rises above the clouds, a group of international dermatologists are hoping to help a very vulnerable population.

The region has one of the highest incidences of albinism in the world. Although the condition is rare in the western world, it is quite common in sub-Saharan Africa, according to some studies. (While the incidence of this genetic condition is about 1 in 37,000 U.S. residents, the rate in this region is as high as 1 in 1,400.)

The people with albinism are also subject to discrimination, stigma and even murder.

Sun Damage to Back of an Albino Individual

But, another important concern is the health of the albinos whose pink skin is exposed to the African sunshine, and where many of the occupations are outdoors and in the field.

Many of the locals with albinism die of cancer before age 40; in fact, fewer than 2% make it to their 40th birthday. And almost all of the children with albinism show signs of sun damage before age 10.

Because of a lack of funding, many can’t afford hats to protect themselves; because of a lack of education, many don’t know the link between sun damage and cancer.

That’s according to Dr. David McLean, the secretary-general of the International League of Dermatological Societies, a nongovernmental organization affiliated with the World Health Organization.

Dr. McLean has been visiting the region for the past 2 decades, helping to establish and grow the Regional Dermatology Training Centre (RDTC), an ILDS program, in the town of Moshi in Tanzania.

He is also among a group who recently spearheaded a project to make hats — the ones with 7.5-cm rim — available to the albinism population in Tanzania. [Listen to Dr. McLean below.]

Called “Hats On for Skin Health,” a collaboration between the ILDS and Stiefel, the project is a global effort to raise funds for the purchase of hats and other protective items for albinos in Tanzania.

Sun-Protective Hat on an Albino Girl

The items will be distributed by RDTC that manages a mobile skin care clinic, which regularly visits people with albinism living in the region and educates the locals, especially parents, about albinism. The lesson they try to get across, said Dr. McLean, is to let their children play outdoors, but cover them up first.

The group has located a hat manufacturer in Moshi, which is currently producing template models for children and adults. Many of the workers, said Dr. McLean, have albinism. “We think that’s definitely part of the solution going forward,” he said.

The cost of manufacturing a hat in Africa? Less than $2.50. The hats are expected to last for at least for 10 years.
To start the campaign, Stiefel, a subsidiary of GlaxoSmithKline, has donated $25,000, and Dr. McLean hopes that dermatologists, other professionals, and even the public, get involved with the campaign.

“Our people are on the ground there. We know what happens to every donated dollar,” said Dr. McLean.

The group expects to have handed out at least 15,000 hats by this time next year. Visit www.hatsonforskinhealth.org to learn more.

(Photos courtesy of the patients and staff of the Regional Dermatology Training Centre, Tanzania.)

By Naseem S. Miller (@ReportingBack)

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Filed under Dermatology, IMNG

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