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THE SILENT KILLER: SUN AND AFRICA’S ALBINOS

While many albinos live in mortal fear of witchdoctors in Africa who time and again need their body parts to create portions for customers seeking luck or wealth, they face far greater threat from a natural source. As Ross Velton writes in her article for BBC.com

On stage, Sixmond Mdeka goes by the name Ras Six. He is a successful reggae singer in his homeland of Tanzania, yet despite his fame, he is haunted by another name – East Africa Yellow Man.

Mdeka has albinism – his skin, hair and eyes lack melanin, the pigment that gives skin its colour and helps to protect it from damage by ultraviolet light from the Sun. It is a genetic disorder inherited from parents who both carry a faulty gene that prevents the skin from making melanin properly.

Tanzania has a dark relationship with albinism. Witch doctors hunt those suffering from the condition for their body parts, which are used in potions to bring good luck and wealth. Victims can be kidnapped and then dismembered by hired killers, or even sold by unscrupulous family members, with body parts fetching up to $75,000 (£60,000). The UN estimates around 80 people with albinism in Tanzania have been murdered since 2000.

But these brutal attacks are not the greatest threat to people with albinism in Africa. They face a slower death from a disease known as the “silent killer”. Without melanin to protect them, they have a much higher risk of getting skin cancer.

(Credit: Ross Velton)

Sixmond Mdeka is a reggae star, but as a child he was shunned because of his albinism (Credit: Ross Velton)

“When you have no melanin, no protection, you’re just getting dinged, these insults from the UV radiation, you’re getting it all the time. It’s not just when you’re at the beach,” says Dr Marc Glashofer, a fellow of the American Academy of Dermatology.

“The closer to the equator you are, the stronger the Sun, the stronger the rays, the more risk of skin cancer.”

Albinism groups say more than 90% of people with the condition in Africa die before they reach 40-years-old. Mdeka is that age now – and the clock is ticking on his life. Last September the singer needed an operation to remove a melanoma near his left ear. “Sun is our number one enemy,” he says.

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