By Ana Valenzuela Estrada
Vitiligo impacts every race and ethnicity in this country, amounting to over 3.5 million residents. However, it is clear that it has had a much more severe impact on people of color, including Latinos. Under this autoimmune condition, an individual’s own immune system destroys their pigment producing skin cells, leaving behind milky white splotches all over their body. This can leave them vulnerable to other potential diseases, including thyroid disease, Crohn’s disease, and even Type 1 Diabetes.
Vitiligo has more often than not become a burden on the social and professional lives of its Latino patients, all due to the color of their skin. While the scientific community has successfully begun to develop treatments to curb the impact of vitiligo, the struggle remains in acknowledging vitiligo for what it is: a real disease that needs to be treated.
Even while the main symptom is skin depigmentation, vitiligo has taken a toll well beyond that. Specifically, this is centered around how the discoloration of their skin leads them to face social stigma and discrimination from their peers. This can leave various groups, including people of color, excluded from a number of social opportunities that can sometimes be taken for granted, such as developing friendships and romantic relationships. As a result, vitiligo can lead individuals to develop psychological issues, including low self-esteem and a negative self-image.
Not only that, but vitiligo patients have also seen their own career trajectories impeded.
A study conducted by the American Academy of Dermatology found that more than 1 in 10 patients with vitiligo reported experiencing job discrimination. When studying employers themselves, another study reported that they were unwilling to hire vitiligo patients to their organizations due to fears of losing out on potential business and clientele. These actions only further contribute to the depression and embarrassment that many vitiligo patients feel, worsening their mental health.
All of this has had a significant impact on Latinos. This community already suffers from poorer health outcomes, with the peer-reviewed medical journal Psychiatric Services finding that they are less likely to receive treatment for depression and anxiety compared to their white counterparts. At the same time, Latinos also still struggling to financially recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, as they either lost their jobs or were forced to agree to major pay cuts.
Such issues are only exacerbated for Latinos with vitiligo, who must seek to navigate these health and economic obstacles on top of their existing medical condition.
Several current treatments are currently available, but they only minimize the impact that vitiligo has on the lives of patients. Resources such as light treatments, lotions, or even surgery have led to inconsistent results in reducing discoloration. However, a new FDA approved therapy has been found to have regenerated significant skin repigmentation in just a few months, marking a turn in the fight against the disease.
Even so, the proven success of new vitiligo treatments has not moved some healthcare insurance plans. This is mainly due to their long held logic that vitiligo is just cosmetic. In truth, key health organizations such as the American Academy of Dermatology and the National Institutes of Health have sought to counteract this dated thinking by defining vitiligo as a medical disease.
Unless action is taken quickly to address this misconception, countless patients will continue to go without the medications they need. Vitiligo has managed to harm the lives of too many people of color across the country, as the condition has left them to question their confidence and self-esteem. However, we can fight back against these consequences. To do so, we must make it clear that vitiligo is a medical disease that warrants treatment, not just a cosmetic skin ailment.
Ana Valenzuela Estrada is a long time Latina leader in Arizona and at the national level. She was one of the founders of the Arizona League of United Latin American Councils (LULAC) and served for a decade as the national vice president for youth. She continues her service to LULAC as a senior advisor to the national president.