WORCESTER (CBS) – Vitiligo is a common condition that causes people to lose pigment in their skin. Michael Jackson famously suffered from it, allegedly bleaching his skin to make it look more even.
Patients are often told there are no effective treatments but a local doctor and one of the world’s leading experts on vitiligo says that’s just not true.
“I noticed it around my eyes at the beginning,” explains 9-year old Aparna Deokar was almost three when she started developing white patches around her eyes. By the time she was five, she had many more.
“Mostly just everywhere like on my hands, my feet,” says Aparna.
Aparna was diagnosed with vitiligo, a common skin condition that affects 1 in 100 people. It occurs when a patient’s own immune system attacks and kills pigment-making cells in the skin called melanocytes.
It’s not dangerous, and it’s not contagious, but Aparna says it does draw attention.
“People ask me what’s that white thing on your skin,” Aparna explains. “So they don’t really mean to be mean, but they’re just curious about it.”
While Aparna has a positive attitude about her condition, for some it can be devastating.
“There are some patients who won’t leave their home because they have it,” says Dr. John Harris, Director of the Vitiligo Clinic and Research Center at UMass Medical School. “They’ll quit their jobs. They’ll stop socializing. They won’t go out during the day. They’ll only go out at night.”
Dr. Harris says vitiligo is reversible but patients with widespread involvement often need UV light therapy, but at wavelengths that don’t promote skin cancer.
“We have booths here in the hospital where people come in two to three times a week,” Dr. Harris explains. “They spend two minutes standing in the booth getting the light. It looks a little like a tanning booth but standing up.”
Dr. Harris treated Aparna with a remarkable response. A few months later, the vitiligo on her face is completely gone. Certain areas are harder to treat but Aparna and her mom are thrilled and say Dr. Harris is “like magic”.
Dr. Harris says he is often the fifth or sixth dermatologist people have seen because they’ve been told repeatedly that vitiligo is not treatable, but he says that’s absolutely false and that patients should know there are options.
“I care a lot about my patients,” says Dr. Harris. “I look them in the eye. I spend a lot of time with them. I watch them cry. I hear about their stories. I see the anxiety. I see the level that this affects them….That is a huge motivator for what we do.”
Aparna is so inspired by Dr. Harris and how he has helped her, she wants to pay it forward.
“I want to be a dermatologist like him and work with him when I grow up,” says Aparna.
Dr. Harris and his colleagues are developing a clinical trial in humans that will test a new treatment which will hopefully give long lasting improvements in the skin of people with vitiligo.