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Understanding Albinism's Effect on the Eyes

Understanding Albinism's Effect on the Eyes The pigment in our eyes, skin and hair helps to protect our bodies from harmful UV rays. Some people are born without this pigment. This is a condition called albinism. Albinism can result in many vision defects and problems. Let’s look at this condition in a little more detail and determine how it can impact the eyes.

What is Albinism?

Albinism is an inherited genetic condition. It comes from a recessive gene which means that both parents must be carriers of the particular gene to pass it onto their children. Carriers of the gene often do not have any signs or symptoms of the condition. Albinism is a lack of the pigment melanin in the eyes, hair or skin (or any combination of the three). Albinism is fairly rare. It is estimated that about 1 in 17,000 people have some form of albinism and that 1 in 75 people are a carrier of this disease.

Since albinism causes the body to produce less melanin than necessary people with this disease are more prone to sun damage, skin cancer, visual problems and other conditions. Melanin is a type of pigment that protects the skin and eyes.

People with this condition are commonly called albinos, but the proper name for the disease is albinism as the term albino carries negative connotations. Albinism is present in every race and is even found in the animal kingdom.

Types of Albinism

Albinism is a lack of pigment in hair, eyes or skin. Some people only lack pigment in one of these three areas while others may have reduced pigment levels in all three. As a result there are many different types of albinism classified by genetic testing and the symptoms that they produce.

  • Oculocutaneous Albinism (OCA)- This form of albinism affects the hair, skin and eyes. There are currently four main classifications of this type of albinism. This form of albinism is often accompanied by eye and vision abnormalities.

  • Ocular Albinism (OA)- This form of albinism is much less common than OCA. It primarily impacts the eyes although the hair and skin may be slightly less pigmented than other family members that do not have OA.

Albinism and the Eyes

Most people with albinism have vision problems as well. Often these visual troubles cannot be treated with the use of glasses alone. Many of the problems are uncorrectable. Those with albinism are also prone to low vision and blindness. These vision problems are a result of irregular growth of the retina, which is the light sensitive tissue at the back of the eye, and irregular nerve connections and patterns. These vision problems are often indicative of having albinism and eye examinations are a common method for discovering and diagnosing this condition.

Many eye problems are common in people with albinism due to the lack of pigment in the eyes. It is not uncommon to find strabismus (crossed eyes), amblyopia (lazy eye), astigmatism, far-sightedness, nearsightedness, optic nerve misrouting, retinal problems and other eye conditions. Those with albinism are also commonly very sensitive to light. They may exhibit signs of photophobia which is an extreme sensitivity to bright lights and glare.

Treatment for OCA and OA

The vision problems associated with this condition are generally not correctable. Often treatment is used to help alleviate the symptoms although eye problems will be a consistent struggle for those with albinism throughout their lives.

Visual rehabilitation is one common form of treatment. Those with albinism need to learn the best ways to make the most of their limited visual capabilities. If strabismus (crossed eyes) is present surgery may be used to realign the eyes for aesthetic purposes. Optic nerve misrouting, another common eye problem in those with albinism, cannot be corrected and as such many treatments and procedures do not bring great benefit to vision correction.

Those with albinism must learn to find solutions to common problems that they face. For example glare and bright light can cause pain and an inability to see, but they still need light to see and cannot just live in the dark. Sunglasses and tinted lenses can be very helpful. Also learning to place lamps and light sources behind the head for reading and other tasks can make it possible to see without having to deal with bright lights directly. Optical aids are also commonly used. The aids selected will vary based on the visual problems experienced and the tasks that the aids will be assisting with.

Albinism poses some very unique visual problems that can be difficult to treat. It greatly impacts the eyes and can impact other areas of life as well.

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