What is albinism and what causes it?

Why are there so many people with albinism in Africa? Is albinism limited to a race group? We answer your questions.

Explainer albinism

Al Jazeera has received a number of questions about albinism following the publishing of our investigation into the killings of people with albinism in Malawi.

The report, “Killed for their bones: On the trail of the trade in human body parts” explores the reasons behind the devastating attacks on the community in Malawi over the past two years.

Al Jazeera answers some of your questions below.

What is albinism?

Albinism is a congenital disorder that results in a lack of pigmentation (known as melanin) that gives colour to hair, skin and eyes. Other conditions associated with albinism include vulnerability to bright light, which can cause legal blindness.

Because their skin is particularly vulnerable to the sun’s ultraviolet rays, people with albinism can also be predisposed to skin cancer and lesions. According to a 2014 study, people with albinism in Africa are 1,000 times more likely to get skin cancer than others.

There are five genetic types of albinism, the most common being oculocutaneous (“oculo” meaning eye and “cutaneous” meaning skin) type 1 (OCA1) and type 2 (OCA2). 



What causes albinism?

Albinism is caused by a recessive gene, meaning both parents must carry the gene for it to be passed on. The parents themselves do not need to exhibit albinism.

Many children with albinism have blue or brown eyes. Sometimes, the eyes might appear pink or reddish, and that is a result of the iris having very little colour. Albinism is a lifelong condition and does not cause intellectual disabilities.

Children with albinism usually have normal intelligence but their poor health and poor vision can often result in persons with albinism abandoning schooling.

People with albinism are considered legally blind because their photoreceptors (or cells in the retina that detect light) are unable to adequately convert light into clear signals to the brain. As a result, persons with albinism have a condition called nystagmus. This is when the eyes continuously flutter. They may also have problems with reduced depth perception and with tracking an object with their eyes.


How common is albinism?

Albinism occurs globally, in all gender, racial and ethnic groups. Estimates of affected people as part of the general population vary from region to region. The highest rate is in Sub-Saharan Africa with an estimated 1 in 5,000 people likely to be a person with albinism in Tanzania.


What is the preferred term?

The term “albino” has historically been used in a derogatory manner, so “person with albinism” is preferred when referring to people with albinism. “Albino” also defines a person by his appearance, but “person with albinism” puts the person before their condition.


What are some myths about people with albinism?

Source: Al Jazeera