Around this time of the year, there is fog and dry winds all over; drivers throw up their car lights much early and leave them on longer; students and workers pull on the sweaters and jackets in the morning; skins become dry and pale; lips either crack or get wildly glossed.
These are signs that the harmattan is here. Excessively hot temperatures in the afternoons makes everyone dread this season but not more than a person living with albinism (albino) would. They have superfluous sun-sensitive skins. “Our number one enemy in this world is the sun,” says primary school head teacher Newton Kwamla Katseku.
Walking Weekend Sun through his life as a person with albinism, Katseku said “Now that the harmattan is severe, persons with albinism are most at risk. They suffer this condition we call black spot, which can develop into skin cancer.” Katseku, also National Secretary of Ghana Association of Persons with Albinism, GAPA, has particular concern for his colleagues in the upper part of the country where temperature sometimes surges beyond 40 Degree Celsius during the drier season. “Get to the Northern Region, I pity them,” he sympathised, indicating that most of the persons living with albinism can be found in that part of the country.
GAPA moderately estimates that not less than 1,500 persons have the albinism condition in Ghana. Katseku’s worry is that scorching sun has a lot to do with the seven or more forms of body cancer to which a person with albinism is prone. Yet, there are many individuals and families who do not know how to help persons with albinism care for their skins.
On the contrary, Katseku – with an unblemished skin – has benefitted from the knowledge of his educationist grandfather. “My parents were form four leavers but my grandfather was an educationist” whose knowledge of albinism fundamentally “helped my parents to take good care of me. I put on long sleeves as protective clothes. I farmed when I was with my parents in the Volta Region but I made sure I went to the farm as early as possible and left there before the sun began to scorch.”
Albinism and sunburn
Medical scientists refer to albinism as a condition arising from a rare group of genetic disorders that cause the skin, hair, or eyes to have little or no colour. This lack of colouration is due to the total absence or little presence of Melanin, a chemical in our bodies that colours our skin, eyes, and hair. This chemical, according to scientists, is made by melanocytes, which are cells found in the bottom layer of your skin.
Scientists also say that the absence of pigmentation makes the skin many times more susceptible to sunburn. One body of knowledge on albinism and sunburn is the U.S.-based volunteer National Organisation for Albinism and Hypopigmentation, NOAH, which offers information and support to people with albinism, their families and the professionals who work with them.
Among information disseminated by NOAH is the fact that it is an invisible part of the light spectrum of the sun, the ultraviolet light, which damages skin. The shorter wavelength ultraviolet light, UVB, has a much bigger role in causing sunburn than the longer wavelength UVA. “Newer research suggests than UVA, since it penetrates more deeply, may cause skin cancer and premature ‘aging’ of the skin,” NOAH has stated.
According to NOAH, “People with albinism can enjoy the outdoors by limiting their exposure to sunlight, wearing appropriate hats and clothing, and using sunscreens diligently. However, the task of preventing damage to the skin over a lifetime is a difficult one.” On the issue of sunscreens, NOAH identifies that manufacturers made sunscreens to block UVB and not UVA, so normally pigmented people could tan without burning. Now sunscreen manufacturers label sunscreens as “broad spectrum,” which means they block both UVB and UVA.
In the United States, NOAH advises people with albinism to use sunscreens labelled sun protection factor (SPF) of 20 to 30. This is based on laboratory test that measures the time it takes people wearing a standard amount of sunscreen to sunburn under a standard ultraviolet lamp, compared to the time with no sunscreen.
Following from this, NOAH says that in theory, if a person could stay in the sun 10 minutes without burning when without a sunscreen, he or she could wear an SPF 20 sunscreen and stay in the sun 20 times 10 minutes or 200 minutes before burning.
In tropical zones like Ghana, Mawunyo Yakor-Dagbah, a person with albinism and president of GAPA, reasons that a product with SPF of 40 or more could be more suitable. “You need to protect your skin by using sun care products that you need to apply any time you are going out into the sun.
But, she indicates, “It is very expensive. They are sold at 30 or 40 cedis depending on the size and the SPF, which ranges from 8 to 70 percent,” adding that products with higher SPF cost more.
Mawunyo indicates that many members of GAPA come from poor backgrounds are therefore unable to afford the skin products. “Largely, most of us are not able to acquire the sun care products. We’ve seen people who have died of the cancer. As the dark spots come and you don’t take of them they become sores and cancerous.” She recalled how many years ago her younger brother, also with albinism, was hospitalised for days after he had taken part in an Independence Day parade as a cadet corp. “The heat and the sweat had caused his back to blister and we had to seek urgent medical attention for him.”
Possibly, “You need to avoid being in the sun,” she suggest albeit quickly quizzing rhetorically that “In this part of the world, can you avoid it?” The cheaper alternative is that “You always have to be in long-sleeved, high-neck clothes and the big hat that the market women use.”
Regarding the affordability of products with sunscreen, Weekend Sun’s checks around Accra indicates that there are many ranges of products available in cosmetic shops at prices ranging between 16 and 30 cedis. Ohenewaa, a shop attendant, claimed that products with sunscreen were “not fast moving because we blacks don’t protect our skins.” Analysing her clientele, she said they were mostly pigmented individuals.
In her shop were products like Ombia Suncare. A fifty gram bottle of that product with SPF 50 was selling at GHC20. That size, Ohenewaa said could last for a period of three weeks, meaning during the harmattan a person may require multiples of that quantity.