Abuja, Nigeria – Nigerian Cynthia Ukachi, who has albinism, first noticed the changes to her skin in 2018. When she went to the hospital, she was told it was an early stage of skin cancer and that it had started because of exposure to the sun.
Thanks to a government support program that offered free skin cancer care to albinos, she underwent surgery to remove the affected areas and was treated.
However, Ukachi says the malignant skin cells returned months ago, long after the government ended its free treatment plan.
“I have three on my neck, I have two on my back and I just have this on my forehead here,” she said. “It looks very small but it’s very painful and it can bleed.”
Without government support, around 4 million albinos in Nigeria could be at risk of skin cancer, aid groups say.
Too expensive for her
Ukachi says she can’t afford the treatment. Each affected area of skin can cost up to $350 to treat.
“Noticing this problem again, I already knew what it was, but I couldn’t go back to the hospital, knowing that I would be asked to pay, and the money is what I don’t have” , she said. “If the government wants me to live, if the government wants people with albinism to live, they should restore free cancer treatment.”
Nigerian authorities launched the program in 2007, and the Albinism Association of Nigeria says around 5,500 patients, including Ukachi, benefited from it before it was halted due to lack of funding.
Jake Epelle, a skin cancer survivor and AAN President, said, “Even the current administration started the skeletal implementation early in their term but then backtracked. The reason for that is simply the poverty of funds and the fact that they cannot continue to offer this The effect is that people with albinism are dying in droves.
Medical experts claim that albinos in sub-Saharan Africa are a thousand times more likely than the general population to develop skin cancer due to the partial or total absence of melanin, a pigment responsible for the color of the eyes, hair and skin.
In Nigeria, myths and discrimination associated with the disease make it much more difficult for albinos to find employment and afford treatment for skin cancer.
The authorities react
This month, on a national awareness day in memory of people living with albinism, the AAN renewed its call on the government to restore free treatment for skin cancer.
Nigerian authorities have responded. James David Lalu, executive secretary of the National Commission for the Disabled, said: “We have had discussions with the permanent secretary of the Federal Ministry of Health so that we can review this. We will provide financial support to the Further, by next year, we will provide an appropriate budget allocation that will support this cancer treatment for our people.
AAN warns that there is no time to lose as free treatment is the only lifeline for people across the country like Ukachi, who fears he is running out of time.