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Last Updated: Wednesday, 11 June, 2003, 15:37 GMT 16:37 UK
Cancer stalks Tanzania's albinos
By Daniel Dickinson
BBC News Online in Dar es Salaam

Albino ward
At one cancer ward, five of the 33 patients are albinos
Albinism - the genetic condition whereby people are born with little or no pigment in their eyes, skin or hair - is putting 17,000 Tanzanians at severe risk of skin cancer.

Because their skin does not contain the usual amount of pigment, called melanin, they are left without natural protection against the sun - and as a consequence the number of deaths from skin cancer is high.

And in Tanzania, their fair, almost lily-white pigmentation is particularly sensitive to the African sun.

"I worked in the sun for a long time, so I assume that is the problem - why I got cancer," albino Samual Mluge told BBC World Service's Health Matters programme.

Mluge - who has blonde hair and white skin pitted with red blotches and tiny patches of black - had a tumour in his back.

After treatment with radiation, it is now the size of a small peanut - four times smaller than at its worst.

Albino woman
Albinos are forced to stay out of the sun
"The doctor advised me to protect myself, to stay in the shade, to wear a hat, and to cover my body all the time," he said.

But Mr Mluge is very fortunate.

While all skin cancers are treatable if caught early enough, many patients simply do not get to the hospital in time.

"These advanced cases - whatever the modality of treatment, the chance of going back to a normal life is very difficult," cancer specialist Dr Nassoro Mohamed told Health Matters.

"They either die in the hospital, or die slowly at home."

Another problem is that most primary doctors do not have the training to spot skin cancer's tell-tale signs.

"When they see these albinos have small ulcers they think they are normal ulcers and treat them with antibiotics," Dr Mohamed said.

Dr Nassoro Mohamed
Dr Mohamed says other doctors need to learn skin cancer symptoms
Specialists are now working hard at the prevention of skin cancer, with beta carotene supplements having been shown to offer the skin more protection.

But in Tanzania they re far too expensive for most albinos.

Sun creams are more affordable - but still considered a one-off for people like Samuel.

However, those suffering from albinism are becoming more aware of the dangers of skin cancer.

That's largely thanks to the albino society. Their aim is to make sure that one day there will be no deaths amongst albinos for this curable skin disease.



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