It was just another day at the cryosurgery treatment center sponsored by the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA) for albinos in Tanzania.
Richard, the first patient of the day, had already been diagnosed with skin cancer and had returned for treatment.
“Tell me about yourself,” Dr. Janeth Peter said as she entered the room and prepared her patient for treatment.
“There’s not much to tell,” Richard replied as he held out his arm. It was splotchy and reddish. Dr. Peter had no doubt that this patient would be dead by age 40 if he didn’t receive treatment.
Albinos are predisposed to skin cancer and poor vision due to reduced production of melanin. This lack of melanin leaves their skin with very little color and very little natural protection from the sun.
Unfortunately, their white skin and hair make them oddities in Tanzania. Spiritualists perceive them as ghosts. Witch doctors believe that their body parts contain special powers, so they’re willing to pay top dollar for an arm or a toe, and even more for a heart.
After swabbing Richard’s arm with rubbing alcohol, Dr. Peter looked him in the eye. “There will be a slight pinch when I inject the anesthetic,” she said. “But believe me, you’d rather feel this than that.”
Dr. Peter then reached for a needlelike applicator called a cryogun. “Now, tell me what you do for a living?”
“I lost a good-paying job at a motel,” Richard began. “Fewer people traveled after our city was impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. For the time being, I’m delivering parcels on my boda boda [motorcycle]. Sometimes people pay me to take them places. On a good day, I can earn five thousand Tanzanian shillings [US$2].”
He winced as the doctor applied liquid nitrogen on his arm at a temperature between -346 and -320°F.
“There are worse things than losing employment,” Richard said before taking a long pause. “Being an albino in Tanzania is like being sentenced to a life of fear and discrimination. Some people think I’m cursed.”
It’s no secret that people with albinism (PWAs) in Africa suffer from discrimination, superstition, poverty, human rights abuse, and protection issues, making them one of the most marginalized and vulnerable communities.
Since 2006, at least 73 PWAs were murdered because of superstition, and hundreds were targeted for ritual killings. Frequent attacks on PWAs forced the government to establish “temporary holding shelters” and special boarding schools to protect and educate albino children. While the shelters keep them safe, they exclude these children from society.
Dr. Peter nodded. “Tell me about your family.”
“I have a little girl,” Richard continued. “She’s so cute! I’m glad she didn’t get this curse.”
“Oh, it’s not that bad,” Dr. Peter said. “I think we’ve nailed this cancer before it spread.”
“I meant, I’m glad she’s not an albino with a price on her head,” Richard insisted.
Dr. Peter nodded and patted his shoulder. The treatment was over.
Weeks later, Richard returned for a follow-up examination.
“Thank you!” he said, holding out his arm for the ADRA staff to see. “My skin is so smooth and healthy now. Look! There are no more spots like I had before.” His excitement brought cheer to Dr. Peter and the staff at the center.
ADRA has supported people with albinism over the past four decades, focusing mainly on education and coordinating with the government dermatology department services and Tanzania Albinism Society for community mobilization.
According to the National Organization for Albinism and Hypopigmentation, about 1 in 18,000 to 20,000 people in the United States have a form of albinism, but in Tanzania, that number increases to 1 in 1,400 people.
“Piloting cryosurgery cancer treatment for persons with albinism in Tanzania is a new project,” said James Bisheko, programs manager for ADRA in Tanzania. “Each person is screened and treated for skin cancer and receives skin protection supplies, including sunscreen lotions and hats.”
The project began in January 2020 and has already assisted hundreds of people.
“The new pilot project, which gives the most relief to recipients, removes precancerous or noncancerous skin lesions and does a vital work of stopping skin cancer in its tracks,” Bisheko explained. “ADRA’s goal is to promote prevention using radio, public meetings, and SMS messaging.”
The Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA) is the global humanitarian organization of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Through an international network, ADRA delivers relief and development assistance to individuals in more than 118 countries. For more information about ADRA’s efforts to help people with albinism, visit ADRATanzania.org. To learn more about ADRA, visit ADRA.org.
To watch ADRA mission stories, visit the Mission 360° ADRA page at m360.tv/adra.
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