More than 300 albinos in Liberia have received free treatment for skin cancer prevention as part of a new government initiative. The U.S.-based National Organization for Albinism and Hypopigmentation
says that albinos living in tropical regions, such as West Africa, are at increased risk of developing skin cancer.
Albinos in West Africa have long faced severe discrimination and rejection in their communities. A lack of pigmentation in their skin not only makes them look different, but also puts them at an increased risk for skin cancer and blindness.
The president of the Liberia Albino Society (LAS), Patricia Logan, says the number of Liberian albinos who die from cancer has been on the rise.
"Skin cancer is killing all our people every year," she said. "Every year we are dying of skin cancer… Every day if you look outside, there’s some pictures that are placed on the wall there, if you look, you’ll see how many of our people have died. As I’m speaking, there are more to come."
Logan said that traditional preventative measures against sunburn, such as wearing long clothes, hats and sunglasses, have not been enough.
"The problem that they face is fungus…. What we usually do is that we give fungus ointment," she said. "At the end of the day, that’s what we use to protect them from infecting more disease when it comes to fungus. But you don’t find these creams in Africa. You find it in the [United] States or in Germany."
The special ointment is meant to treat certain types of skin fungi that some doctors believe may contribute to the development of skin cancer.
Logan said that one jar of the ointment costs around $20. This is a price that many Liberian albinos can’t afford.
Logan said that because albinos are often marginalized from society, many were never allowed to go to school and remain uneducated. Others cannot find work simply due to their appearance.
But now, for the first time, albinos in Liberia are receiving the ointment free of charge. The new preventative treatment program is being funded by the government and administered by local health clinics in conjunction with the LAS. It has so far benefited more than 300 people in two counties in Western Liberia.
Solo Toe, 12, was born with albinism. He said he is grateful for the free treatment.
"Right now I am sick, suffering from skin cancer," he said. "I’ve done some treatment and I am trying but I need more treatment. I hope that I will get well in the future. We are many that are suffering from this disease. Some of my friends have died."
Hospital nurse Murray Nelson said that while the free treatment will help many albinos, challenges remain.
"There are many of them with this condition. The conditions are terrible," Nelson said. "We don’t have enough jobs in this country to cure them. But we are managing with their condition. They need more skin ointment to clean their body. This is terrible and this new option can help but we are managing the situation."
The LAS says they plan to expand treatment to reach another 2,500 of Liberia's estimated 7,000 albinos in the coming months.