What is Vitiligo?

Vitiligo (also called "leukoderma") is a skin condition in which there is loss of pigment from areas of the skin resulting in irregular white spots or patches, even though the skin has normal texture. Vitiligo may appear at any age. Although it is a progressive condition, many people experience years or decades without developing new spots. The cause of vitiligo is not greatly understood, and there may be many causes that result in the condition.

Vitiligo is not contagious in any way. Susceptibility to vitiligo is thought by many to be genetic, as it is often, though not always, seen in families. It is thought by many that Vitiligo is an auto-immune related disorder, meaning a condition in which the body's immune system turns on its own tissue or cells, in this case, the melanocytes (pigment cells which give the skin its color.) This does not necessarily represent a weak or deficient immune system, but rather one which is malfunctioning or misdirected. Other research has centered on diet, vitamin deficiencies, and internal pathogens such as yeast proliferation. Though the condition has no other known effects on the body, the psychological and social effects are well documented.

Vitiligo is more noticeable in darker skinned people because of the contrast, although when they tan, even lighter skinned people are affected. This condition affects about 1% to 2% of the US population, or about 3 to 6 million people. In other countries, the incidence is even higher. Worldwide, there is thought to be more than 100 million people with the condition. Vitiligo would appear to be as old as the recorded history of man - it is mentioned in the Bible, and there are references to it in ancient Egyptian, Greek and Chinese writings.

For years, many dermatologists have told their patients that vitiligo is untreatable, or that treatment is not terribly successful. Some are so bold as to inform their patients "you're lucky it's not fatal! or "you're lucky you don't have cancer!" But this is of little consolation to most sufferers. Many doctors are equipped only to prescribe the PUVA system (Ultra Violet A light treatments and psoralen medication), and although still appropriate and effective for some patients, new and promising technologies involving Narrow Band Ultra Violet B light, pseudocatalase, pigment transplantation, excimer lasers, and even systemic treatments (such as immunomodulators) are showing equal or better success. More and more doctors are becoming aware of the great promise seen in narrow band UVB light, lasers, and other new treatments being developed around the world.

Today, vitiligo is a treatable condition, though treatment can take several years to regain pigment. There is more research being conducted than ever before; in Europe, in Asia, and in the U.S., new technologies such as improved PUVA systems, Narrow Band UVB light and systemic treatments are changing physicians' approaches to the condition. The recent mapping of the human genome has paved the way for advanced genetic research into vitiligo, and other cell-based theories are also gaining attention.

Many experts believe that with biomedical technology improving as it is, that within the next three to five years, we will probably see a greater understanding, and a viable treatment, for vitiligo, and other chronic skin disorders.