How Climate Change Exacerbates Risks for African People Living with Albinism

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Copyright/ Courtesy of: REUTERS/Akintunde Akinleye | DISCLAIMER: The image used in this article is the property of REUTERS/Akintunde Akinleye. All rights to the image are reserved by REUTERS and Akintunde Akinleye. This image is being used for educational purposes only and is not intended for commercial gain.

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The lives of African albinos hang precariously in the balance. The heightened temperatures and increased intensity of ultraviolet (UV) radiation, hallmarks of climate change, pose an immediate threat to their lives and render their everyday existence arduous.

Albinism, a genetic condition characterized by a lack of melanin pigment in the skin, hair, and eyes, renders individuals highly susceptible to the sun’s harmful rays. The absence of melanin, the body’s natural defence against UV radiation, leaves people with albinism vulnerable to various health complications, including skin cancer, vision problems, and sunburns.

According to the Independent Expert on albinism, Muluka-Anne Miti-Drummond from the UN, “In Africa alone, it is estimated that persons with albinism are up to 1000 times more likely to develop skin cancer than those without, with many dying by the age of 40,”

The report from the United Nations (UN) shows that, Across the African continent, a staggering 90% are estimated to lose their lives by age 30 due to skin cancer.

Changes In Temperature and Its Implications for The Health of Albinism

Skin Cancer

Skin cancer, the leading cause of death for individuals with albinism, is directly linked to excessive UV exposure. The increased exposure to UV radiation due to climate change significantly amplifies the risk of skin cancer among this population. Studies have shown that individuals with albinism are 20 to 100 times more likely to develop skin cancer compared to the general population. Also, numerous research and reports have documented the impacts of climate change on PWAs in Africa. A 2022 report by the World Health Organization (WHO) highlighted the increased risk of skin cancer and eye problems among PWAs due to climate change.

Eye Problems and Heat-related illnesses

Apart from skin cancer, climate change also aggravates eye problems experienced by individuals with albinism. Photophobia, an extreme sensitivity to light, is a common challenge faced by this population. Increased exposure to UV radiation can exacerbate photophobia, making everyday activities and social interactions difficult. A 2021 study published in “Dermatologic Therapy” found that rising temperatures and reduced ozone layer thickness significantly increased UV exposure levels for PWAs in sub-Saharan Africa.

Heat-related illnesses like heatstroke are becoming more prevalent due to rising temperatures. Individuals with albinism are particularly susceptible to heat-related illnesses due to their reduced melanin production, which limits their ability to regulate body temperature.

Exacerbating Factors for People with Albinism   

Environmental Factors

Sun Exposure: Prolonged and unprotected exposure to sunlight is a significant risk factor for skin cancer, eye problems, and other health issues among PWAs. In regions with limited access to shade and protective clothing, PWAs are at heightened risk of these complications.

Depletion of Ozone Layer: The ozone layer, a protective shield against UV radiation, has been thinning due to human activities. This depletion allows more UV radiation to reach the Earth’s surface, increasing the exposure of PWAs and escalating the risk of skin cancer and other health issues.

Climate Change: Rising temperatures, changing precipitation patterns, and extreme weather events associated with climate change increase UV exposure levels, particularly in regions with limited cloud cover. These environmental stressors exacerbate the already existing vulnerabilities of PWAs.

Socioeconomic Factors

Limited Access to Healthcare: In developing countries, PWAs often face barriers to accessing essential healthcare services, including skin cancer screening, eye care, and genetic counselling. This lack of access leads to delayed diagnoses, inadequate treatment, and increased morbidity and mortality.

Poverty and Social Exclusion: Poverty often limits access to protective resources such as sunscreen, protective clothing, and sunglasses, further increasing the vulnerability of PWAs. Additionally, PWAs may face social stigma and discrimination, hindering their access to education, employment, and social participation.

Traditional Beliefs and Practices: In some cultures, PWAs are subjected to harmful traditional beliefs and practices, such as ritual killings and accusations of witchcraft. These practices not only threaten the safety and well-being of PWAs but also perpetuate stigma and discrimination.

Case Studies

Tanzania has a large population of PWAs, with estimates ranging from 150,000 to 200,000. The country’s tropical climate and high levels of UV radiation make PWAs particularly vulnerable to skin cancer, which is the leading cause of death among PWAs in Tanzania. Climate change exacerbates this risk, as rising temperatures and reduced cloud cover increase UV exposure levels.

A 2019 study published in the journal “PLOS One” found that PWAs in Tanzania had a significantly higher risk of skin cancer than their non-albino counterparts. The study also found that PWAs were more likely to develop skin cancer at a younger age.

Malawi has one of the highest rates of albinism in the world, with an estimated 1 in 1,000 people living with the condition. PWAs in Malawi face a multitude of challenges, including limited access to healthcare, poverty, and social stigma. Climate change is further compounding these challenges, as rising temperatures and extreme weather events are disrupting agriculture and livelihoods, making it even more difficult for PWAs to access necessities and healthcare.

A 2020 study published in the journal “Dermatology” found that PWAs in Malawi had a high prevalence of skin cancer, with over 20% of PWAs surveyed having developed skin cancer by the age of 30.

South Africa has a relatively small population of PWAs, with estimates ranging from 10,000 to 15,000. However, PWAs in South Africa face unique challenges due to the country’s high rates of HIV/AIDS. HIV/AIDS weakens the immune system, making PWAs even more vulnerable to skin cancer and other health problems. A 2018 study published in the journal “AIDS” found that PWAs with HIV/AIDS were more likely to develop skin cancer than PWAs without HIV/AIDS.

Societal and Governmental Responses

Raising awareness and education: Education and awareness campaigns are crucial to dispel the myths and misconceptions surrounding albinism and to promote understanding and acceptance of PWAs within their communities. These campaigns can also help inform PWAs about climate change risks and the importance of protective measures.

Promoting protective behaviours: Encouraging PWAs to adopt protective measures, such as seeking shade, wearing protective clothing, and using sunscreen, can significantly reduce their exposure to UV radiation. Community-based initiatives that promote these behaviours are essential to safeguard the health of PWAs.

Empowerment and self-advocacy: Empowering PWAs through education, training, and participation in decision-making processes is crucial to ensuring their voices are heard and their needs are addressed. Building strong advocacy networks and partnerships among PWAs, organizations, and governments is essential to drive systemic change.

Governmental Responses

Policy development and implementation: Governments can play a significant role in addressing the challenges faced by PWAs by developing and implementing policies that promote access to healthcare, education, employment, and social protection. These policies can also focus on addressing discrimination and stigma against PWAs.

Healthcare access and resource provision: Ensuring affordable and accessible healthcare services, including skin cancer screening, eye care, genetic counselling, and psychosocial support, is essential for early detection, timely treatment, and improved health outcomes for PWAs. Governments can provide funding, infrastructure, and training to strengthen healthcare systems and make these services accessible.

Protective resources and sun protection programs: Providing PWAs with affordable access to sunscreen, protective clothing, and sunglasses is crucial for reducing UV exposure. Governments can implement programs that distribute these resources and promote sun protection practices, such as seeking shade during peak sun hours.

The Role of International Organizations

Raising awareness and education: International organizations, such as the United Nations (UN) and the World Health Organization (WHO), are working to raise awareness about albinism and the unique challenges PWAs face. They research, develop educational materials, and organize campaigns to inform the public, communities, and healthcare providers about albinism and climate change.

Advocacy and policy development: International organizations advocate for the rights of PWAs and promote the development of inclusive policies and laws that protect their rights and address their challenges. They engage with governments, civil society organizations, and other stakeholders to promote policies that address discrimination, ensure access to healthcare, education, and employment, and promote social inclusion.

Resource mobilization and capacity building: International organizations provide financial and technical support to governments, NGOs, and PWA organizations to build capacity, implement programs, and provide essential services to PWAs. This support can include funding for healthcare, education, awareness campaigns, and advocacy initiatives.

Technical expertise and research: International organizations provide technical knowledge and conduct research to improve the understanding of albinism, climate change, and its impact on PWAs. This research can inform policy development, program implementation, and advocacy efforts.

You may also read Empowering Tanzanian Women in the Face of Climate Change: A Call for Gender-Sensitive Policies.

A digital personnel and Content Producer who has made a significant impact on media outlets with his exceptional writing skills. He is passionate about creating informative content and conducting research. Salvius obtained his degree in Journalism and Mass Communication at St. Augustine University of Tanzania, where he gained valuable experience through internships at Mwananchi Communication Newspaper. Salvius worked as a news editor and article reviewer at Scooper, also The south African website as the article writer, further refining his skills. Salvius's outstanding work in the field of digital journalism was recognized by Reuters which awarded him a digital journalism certificate. Salvius also is an environmental influence.

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