Vitiligo on the prowl, but no cure

BY: Edmund Smith-Asante
 Lee Thomas
Lee Thomas

Former WABC entertainment reporter and current WJBK reporter Lee Thomas, 50, first noticed a change in his skin colour when a white spot showed up on his scalp during a haircut when he was 25.

At first the Detroit reporter thought it was the fault of the barber but as the spots grew and increased in number, Thomas and his mother went to a doctor to understand what was happening to him.

Quoting Thomas, Stephanie Tsoflias Siegel, reporter for web portal TVSpy, said:“He [the doctor who diagnosed the condition] kept talking but I didn’t really hear much of anything else because I was in my head thinking my career was over.

I was already thinking of what else I could do with my communications degree.”

The condition, Vitiligo, is a disease that causes the loss of skin colour in blotches and has no cure.

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Thomas first lost pigment in his face and began covering it up with makeup, which worked for years until the condition spread to his hands and became evident to viewers of the WJBK network.

Despite having to live with this disease, Thomas says vitiligo hasn’t stopped him from telling stories.

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He has advanced his career and advocated for others living with vitiligo.

Vitiligo in Ghana

Very visible white patches on the skin are not a rare phenomenon on this part of the continent but many confuse it with albinism as it has to do with low pigmentation of the skin.

But Vitiligo, as it is called, is one of the thousands of diseases that plague the skin.

Unlike others, however, it cannot be cured but only managed, confirms Dr Itohan Roseline Osazuwa, a dermatologist of the Rabito Clinic in Accra.

In an interview with the Daily Graphic last Thursday, she said there were various reasons ascribed to the occurrence of the condition which currently affects two per cent of the world’s population.

“It’s been assumed that it is an autoimmune condition in the sense that rather than the immune system fighting against foreign things such as viruses and bacteria, they rather fight against the healthy cells in our skin,” she explained.

She noted that another proposed reason for the occurrence of vitiligo was that the nerve endings at times produced chemicals that could be poisonous to the melanocytes which are triggered by stressful events that produce neurochemicals.

“The main reason why the autoimmunity or neurochemicals occur, nobody knows.

For those that it is assumed are caused by autoimmunity it is based on a family history of vitiligo or they themselves, the patients, might be suffering from other autoimmunity conditions such as pernicious anemia, a disorder of the stomach.

“Then there is what we call hyperthyroidism, which is the thyroid gland being enlarged or not functioning as it should.

It could also be seen in patients who have melanoma, a skin cancer,” she said.

Dr Osazuwa said vitiligo occurred on different parts of the body such as the face, the neck, the trunk, the arms and even all over the body and could be segmental, meaning it could occur on different parts of one person.


She said “vitiligo can be managed rather than completely cured.

Treatment comes in various types such as the use of tropical steroid creams, or the use of photo light therapy and then it can also be masked with makeup when it is on the exposed part of the body.”

Dr Osazuwa reiterated that the various forms of treatment could improve the condition but could not bring about a total cure and there was also no way to prevent the condition from occurring.

She indicated that while the skin disorder was not deadly, those affected by it had to live with stigmatisation and “for such people their self-esteem or confidence is very low.

She advised people with vitiligo to use sunscreen (cream) or wear hats to protect their faces as the parts of the body affected could experience sunburns.  

Common skin diseases

Dr Osazuwa stated that the most common of skin diseases reported in Ghana was acne, a chronic inflammatory skin condition that causes spots and pimples, especially on the face, shoulders, back, neck, chest, and upper arms. Whiteheads, blackheads, pimples, cysts, and nodules are all types of acne.

Others are eczema, scurvy, infectious fungi, bacterial and viral infections of the skin, among other diseases.

Speaking to cancers of the skin, she said various reasons could be assigned such as hereditary and sunburns from too much exposure to the sun.

She indicated that while black-skinned people were advantaged due to the melanin in the skin, the wearing off of the ozone layer posed a health risk to all people due to the ultra violet rays of the sun.

Melanoma is not common here but we could also be prone to it.

Skin cancer is not a very common skin condition yet in Africa but we have cases of skin cancer,” she cautioned, adding that albinos were more prone to skin cancer.

Love your skin

Dr Osazuwa said the function of the skin generally was to protect the organs from external factors such as the effects of the sun, chemicals, viruses and bacteria, among other organisms that can destroy the organs.

She indicated that protecting one’s skin started from having a good diet, exercises and what was put on the skin such as body creams, adding that water was very important for the skin because it moisturises the skin.

Fruits and vegetables are also vital to nourish the skin.

For pomade, she advised that people should use mild moisturising creams such as the shea butter, or Vaseline. Soaps must also be mild so as not to damage the skin. She advised against the use of bleaching creams which contain mercury and hydroquinone, toxic and caustic ingredients.

She said oily creams aggravated acne and so those with that skin condition must not use such creams which clog the pores.

Dr Osazuma advised those who wanted lighter skins and so use bleaching creams to be comfortable with the skin God created them in “because we (Africans) have been put in an environment where we have a lot of sunlight and God has given us that dark skin to protect us from the sunlight”.

“We should be comfortable in our skin and when we become comfortable in our skin, the whole world would accept us for who we are,” she stated.

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