To date, there's no way to supplement melanin in people with albinism or to force the body to make it. Skin can't be darkened, and eye anatomy can't be fully corrected. But hope is not lost. Treatments for albinism complications are readily available.
Early visits to low-vision eye specialists can improve vision dramatically. Here's what they might prescribe:
- Glasses or contact lenses help sharpen vision by correcting nearsightedness, farsightedness and astigmatism.
- Sunglasses counteract annoying photophobia, both indoors and out. Glasses that block all ultraviolet rays additionally protect the retinas from sun damage.
- Used early, eye patches can treat strabismus by strengthening a wayward-moving eye. Eye-muscle surgery is an alternative.
- Vision aids, such as large-print books, computer displays and video magnifiers, enhance details. Telescopic lenses called bioptics allow focusing close up and far away. Speech synthesizers can help with reading.
Many everyday tricks also help with vision. A finger placed by the eye or head tilting can reduce twitchy nystagmus during reading. Eye-muscle surgery is an alternative. To better read small print or watch television, people with severe farsightedness may sit inches away from the book or TV. Unfortunately, perfect vision can't be restored because current treatments can't correct the optic nerve routing problem or the underdeveloped fovea [source: Oetting].
It is imperative that people with albinism protect their skin from the sun. Protection doesn't necessarily mean staying inside in the dark. Beach vacations are possible, with precautions. The best protection is a plan for managing sun exposure.
Giovanna Ciocca, M.D., of the Children's Skin Center at Miami Children's Hospital, recommends staying out of the sun between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. and being careful in snow and sand, which reflect rays. She recommends sunscreen -- SPF 30, with protection against UVA and UVB rays -- on all exposed body parts. It should be applied 30 minutes before going outside, applied amply and reapplied often. The best sun-blocking clothes are densely woven, breathable synthetic fabrics and a wide-brimmed hat. Thin, wet T-shirts let sun through [source: The Albinism Fellowship]. People with albinism can sunburn on cloudy days because UV rays permeate clouds, Ciocca says. Care is needed even then.
Without protection, people with albinism will develop skin damage and skin cancer. Dark spots may appear that look like freckles. They're not freckles or spots of melanin, explains William Oetting, a professor at the University of Minnesota who has researched albinism genetics. In fact, they're discolorations where proteins and fats inside cells have been destroyed. Skin may also become leathery over time as UV rays age the cells [source: Mayo Clinic]. Skin cancer is avoidable with lifelong protection against UV rays. If caught early, most cases are treatable and curable [source: King et al]. In sub-Saharan Africa, where sun protection can be expensive and treatment isn't always available, skin cancer rates among people with albinism are high [sources: Adegbidi and Dickinson].
In the next section, we will discuss how (or if) albinism affects everyday life.