Vitiligo among Qatar’s populace is not very uncommon according to dermatologists across the country because more people suffer from the rare skin disease.
There might not be any official occurrence of vitiligo in Qatar, many dermatologists claim the chronic disease is common in the country.
According to Dr Ahmed Ghazi, a dermatologist at Dr Ghazi Skin and Venereal Clinic, Vitiligo is a chronic disease that causes white patches to appear on the skin. It can affect any part of the body, usually the face, hands and hair areas that are exposed to sun, and can also affect the inside of the mouth, eyes and nose.
The chronic can affect anybody irrespective of age or social status. Such is the case of Nawal S who was born with white patches on her hair, forehead, arms and legs. Over the years, the white patches expanded to cover more of her skin. However, the patches seem to have lightened as she grows older.
To this day, Nawal does not know why she was born with this skin condition as no one in her family has ever experienced such, she said.
Vitiligo is an aesthetic disease and not life threatening, said Dr Houda Minini, a dermatologist at Syrian American Medical Center near Education City.
Dr Houda said “the disease can affect all races with similar frequency in males and females, pointing out, however, that the white patches are more noticeable on people with darker skin. In most cases, vitiligo appears at any age but five percent of cases develop before the age of 20.”
The specific cause of vitiligo is still unknown, but some say it is an autoimmune disease, which means the body is attacked by its immune system, Dr Ghazi said, pointing out that Vitiligo occurs when the melanocyte in the body destroys itself.
There is a substance in the skin called melanin, which is made in skin cells called melanocyte, he added.
He further said that as a result of the loss of melanin-forming cells, white patches are formed due to a loss of pigment, adding that other risk factors include family history, climate and trauma.
According to Dr Houda, 30 to 40 percent of vitiligo patients have a positive family history of the disease, stressing that familial intermarriage can lead to a major spread of the disease. “The increase rate of marriage between relatives could be attributed to the rise in vitiligo cases,” Dr Houda said.
Experts believe that any traumatic event can also trigger the disease.
Dr Ghazi gave the example of a two-year-old patient who developed vitiligo due to emotional shock after her parents left her behind while travelling. “When her parents came back, they found her body covered in white patches,” he said.
Dr Ghazi added that sun burn is another risk factor as vitiligo is more dominant in sunny climates such as those in North Africa and Middle East.
Apart from trauma and climate, Dr Ghazi said diabetes or thyroid problems can cause the disease.
Dr Houda said vitiligo can be treated either through medication or surgery. She said topical treatments include steroid creams or systemic corticosteroids that are applied to the affected part of the body, adding that other treatments include a form of ultraviolet radiation.
In extreme cases, doctors use surgical treatments like skin grafts, where the doctor removes parts of the patients’ normally pigmented skin and transplant it to the affected areas. If the treatment is successful, the pigmented skin will spread and cover up the white patches.
However if the treatment is not successful, the white patches will spread over the transplanted skin, reducing pigmentation, Dr Ghazi said. “With this kind of disease, there is no guarantee of the success of treatments, and this can affect the patient psychologically, particularly as it may take a long time to get a desired result,” he added.
“About 45 percent of patients get pigmentation after four or six months of treatment. As it is a long wait, the majority of people stop treatment before the results show,” Dr Ghazi said.
Dr Ghazi said that even after a successful treatment, there is risk of relapse. He added that there is a 50 percent chance vitiligo will return within one year of cure.
Similar to most vitiligo patients, Nawal stopped treatment because she did not notice any significant change. She rather grew to love her body, believing that the disease made her feel unique.
“I love my body,” Nawal said.”If I have the chance to keep it with the white patches, I would.”