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SECOND GLANCE

Albinism as a Cultural Phenomenon

Albinism has occupied human imagination since ancient times, as a variety of myths; facts and fiction have been recorded. From the story of Zeus being incarnated as a white bull to the villainous killer in 2003’s Da Vinci Code, albinistic people have been seen as curiosities and even been exhibited in side shows as freaks.

One of the most famous examples of albinism in fiction is the great white whale in Herman Melville's Moby Dick, written in 1851. Further evidence of evil associated with albinism can be found in the novels Jamaica Inn by Daphne Du Maurier and Deliverance by James Dick. The condition has often been used in the cinema to create a sense that provokes our fears of stalkers, assassins, hideousness and characters that are relentless and impervious to pain.

The word "albino" is considered derogatory by victims of albinism. Those who have the condition are so few that writers, filmmakers and TV producers can use this unfortunate condition to amuse or frighten without fear of reprisal. And all this in spite of a disability sensitive movement started over 25 years ago as well as up to date thinking and actions regarding humanism and political correctness.

Some say that albinism predates language and community, but it is still used to strike at our deepest fears. At this very moment albinism in Tanzania is considered by certain tribes as agents of demons. With ignorance and prejudice they are murdering pale eyed and pale skinned inhabitants by the thousands. It is reported that such a victim may be cannibalized by his foes in a ritual that removes their spirit and soul from ever reappearing again in this life or the life hereafter. Body parts of albinistic victims are sold and bartered between tribes and villages. The incidence of albinism in Tanzania is ten times that of any other region of the world.

Albinism is a result of a genetic process which does not permit the production of color in organisms. Examples are: chlorophyll in plants and melanin in people. Melanin provides, in people, color to the skin, hair and eyes. It also provides protection from ultraviolet light rays. There is a complicated series of DNA and chemical formulae that explains how recessive genes (1 in 70) carried by both parents causes albinism. This occurs approximately once in every 17,000 births. Hair color may be white or very light with light skin and blue or gray eye color. Albinism is present in every nation, ethnicity or religion. Most parents have normal coloring. There is a persistent tale that albinism causes a "red eye" appearance. Actually the light irides allow the highly vascular retina and choroid coloration to be seen through the pupil under certain conditions of lighting such as experienced with photography.

Most of those affected by albinism are considered visually disabled. The condition usually results in legal blindness with best corrected V.A. below 20/200. Abnormal neurological patterns are present due to lack of pigment in the foveal area, preventing normal vision and invariably causing nystagmus and photophobia. One can readily imagine the handicaps that would befall an albinistic person in the areas of education, reading, socialization, sports participation, mobility and peer acceptance. Help is sometimes available with new technology and vision aids. There are some who have been able to obtain a driver's license with V.A. enhancement equipment.

Cases of animal albinism are well documented. The "red eye" syndrome is usually more apparent than in humans since the animal eye is smaller and less pigment is available for protection. The albinistic person or animal is as healthy as the rest of their species with normal growth and development. Albinism, by itself, is not life threatening. However, many animals with albinism do not possess their natural protective camouflage in nature and cannot fend for themselves against their predators. Their survival rate, in the wild, is generally quite low. Some animal species are intentionally bred to be albinistic and used in biomedical experiments. The most common lab specimens are: mice, rabbits, rats, fish and frogs. There are many others that are also used for such purposes.

There are two more categories of albinism in humans: oculocutaneous, wherein pigment is lacking in the eye, skin and hair. (In non-human bodies the results are seen in the fur, scales or feathers.) In ocular albinism, only the eyes lack pigment. Albinism can evidence anywhere from no pigment at all to almost normal levels. People with ocular albinism have generally normal skin and hair color and may have a normal eye color appearance. The skin may possess freckles or moles. In Africa and New Guinea albinism usually produces red hair, reddish brown skin and blue or gray eyes. Africans affected with albinism may have yellow hair, pale skin and blue or gray eyes.

Ocular albinism type 2 is frequently linked to a form of color blindness and night blindness. Type 3 albinism seems to be more common among the Amish than in other populations. A variety of albinism is also associated with hearing loss. This has been observed predominantly among the Hopi Native Americans. A complete list of eye conditions prevalent in albinism must include: nystagmus, amblyopia, refractive errors (especially astigmatism), photophobia, foveal hypoplasia, optic nerve hypoplasia, and abnormal crossing of optic nerve fibers in the chiasm.

Some vision aids recommended should include: eyeglasses and subnormal vision aids, large print material, closed captioning, and angled bright reading lights. Help may also be obtained through strong reading lenses, hand held magnifiers and projection screens for close work magnification. Contact lenses may be colored to block uncomfortable light from irritating the retina with unwanted glare. Dark sun wear may help albinistics endure outdoor activities. A rare form of albinism, in addition to the expected skin and eye problems, causes a greater tendency toward bleeding disorders, inflammations of the large bowel, lung disease and kidney problems. In the U.S.A., albinistic people are expected to have a normal life span as opposed to the threat of murder in places like Tanzania.

Elmer Friedman, O.D.
elmerf@verizon.net

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