Albinism & The Eyes
Albinism is a genetic condition that affects approximately 1 in 17,000 people in the United States.
It is a condition in which the pigment (melanin) that is necessary to give color to our skin, hair, and
eyes is either completely or partially absent. In the event of complete absence of pigment, the hair
and skin appear white, and the
iris is a very pale blue. In cases of partial
pigment absence, skin and hair may appear very light tan or slightly red while eyes can appear anywhere
from brown to light blue.
Most people have at least heard that albinos have red eyes, which of course
does appear to be true when you look at them. The appearance of red, however, is simply a reflection
of the blood vessels within the eye. Without a pigmented iris to absorb and block light, the
reflection of the blood vessels is seen by an observer, making the eyes of an albino appear red. It
is similar to the red eye from photographs, but in albinism, simple daylight gives rise to the
appearance of red eyes and not just a camera flash. It is also important to realize that not all
cases of albinism will result in the appearance of red eyes.
Melanin is crucial to vision in that it absorbs excess scattered light in the eye, creating
something of a black-box effect. By absorbing scattered light, melanin enables the
retina to focus more clearly on rays of
light that are directed to the
fovea. Without melanin, vision problems are
imminent, and vision problems experienced by albinos are plentiful.
There are two general categories of albinism, the first being oculocutaneous albinism. As the name
suggests, this is a form of albinism that affects both the skin and the eyes. Such individuals will
have widespread pigment loss. Vision problems in individuals with oculocutaneous albinism include
photophobia (light sensitivity), very
visual acuity (ability to see clearly), and
erratic eye movements
(nystagmus). In the second category,
ocular albinism, only the eyes are affected by pigment loss while skin and hair appear normal.
Detection & Diagnosis of Albinism
Albinism is present from birth and is generally diagnosed based on the appearance of the infant.
There is no treatment or cure for albinism. Individuals with albinism must practise extreme caution
when outside by wearing strong broad-spectrum sunscreen and dark sunglasses.
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