By NBF News

The survival instinct in man was taken a step further in Sokoto State penultimate week when Nigerian albinos gathered to discuss their future, in a society that is hostile to them, especially with particular reference to the manner their like are killed for ritual purposes in Tanzania and other East African countries.

Against their peculiar problem and in order to take their destiny in their hands, the albinos brought together policy makers, health professionals, international development institutions, government agencies, corporate orgainsations at a conference in Sokokto State, where a wide range of issues on albinism where discussed. The conference, specifically, discussed how to help albinos to overcome some of their challenges, especially at grassroots level and how to forge viable partnerships to address their socio-cultural and health challenges.

Indeed, the calibre of men and women who were brought together for the cause of the albinos should make the albinos to sleep with both eyes closed and with full assurance of their protection and interest in the country.

The 4th Annual Conference on Albinism, whose theme is, Albinos May Live Free of Skin Cancer, was held between July 12 and July 13, 2010. Upper most in the minds of albinos is the worsening cases of skin cancer among their members in Nigeria and what should be done to address it at both the preventive and policy levels.

The albinos were full of praises over government's involvement in albinism advocacy in Nigeria, which, they said, has helped to protect them from being killed, like albinos in Tanzania and other East African countries.

According to the founder and chief executive officer of The Albino Foundation, Jake Epelle, the two-day convention, which was held in Sokoto, aimed at 'building on the legacies of previous conferences, which have opened opportunities for partnerships that have yielded results, such as free treatment for albinos with skin cancer, scholarships and other empowerment programmes that benefit albinos across the country.'

Epelle noted that the conference focused on skin cancer owing to the need to find a solution to the peculiar health problem of the albinos. Towards this end, participants at the conference agreed that, 'urgent steps have to be taken to reduce the scourge of skin cancer among albinos, and that traditional institutions have a major role to play in grassroots awareness. They also called for intensified campaign on prevention of skin cancer among albinos, and for further review of existing efforts by government and individuals at treatment and management of skin cancer.

The need for public enlightenment, especially at the rural level, where social stigma is attached to albinos, was stressed at the conference. In this direction, participants called for 'stronger advocacy and public enlightenment, especially in rural areas, where social stereotypes and cultural myths pose greater obstacles to efforts being made to integrate people living with albinism.'

Former President Shehu Shagari, who chaired the conference, had noted in his address the challenges of albinos in the society. He said the conference was a platform to initiate social change, especially in the way society views albinism. He called on all participants to become change agents to support albinos all over the country.

Shagari said there was a need for awareness on albinism, even in little gatherings in the society, and for policies and programmes to be tailored to address these challenges. He called on the media to intensify efforts in creating awareness on albinism, as they have a major role to play to achieve this objective.

On his part, chairman of the governing council of The Albino Foundation and former Minister of Health, Hon. Silas Iloh, listed some of the challenges faced by albinos to include social discrimination, stigmatization, skin cancer, visual impairment, among others. He called for unified effort by the government, corporate organisations, development agencies, and the general public to address these challenges.

The former minister also recognised education and awareness campaigns as important factors in addressing these challenges.

Earlier, while welcoming participants, Minister of State for Health, Dr Muhammuad Jabbi Kugori, had commended the efforts of the founder/CEO of TAF in ensuring the wellbeing of albinos in the country. He also said the main objective of the conference was to come up with ways to prevent albinos from suffering from skin cancer.

Epelle, on his part, called for integration of albinos in the society and in mainstream government policy plan. Saying that there are several opportunities in the society for an albino to excel, he called for a national survey on the statistics of albinos in Nigeria as well as a policy to encourage albinos to explore their potentials, irrespective of the seeming challenges.

In his remark, Sultan of Sokoto, Alhaji Abubakar Sa'ad, who was represented by the Emir of Zamfara, Alhaji Attahiru Muhamud, said there was need for all traditional institutions to be involved in creating awareness on albinism. He also said the traditional institutions of the state have already started working with TAF to address the challenges of albinos, especially in the area of educating albinos on the prevention of skin cancer, and curtailing the social discrimination they face.

Minister for Health, Dr Onyehuchi Christian Chukwu, in his keynote address, drew the attention of participants to the importance of the conference, especially in the face of rising incidence of skin cancer among albinos. He said the Federal Ministry of Health was committed to see that albinos were free of skin cancer.

The minister also informed participants that the ministry set up a skin screening clinic in the conference for free skin examination for albinos and for distribution of free sunscreens for albinos. He explained that albinism was a genetic disorder, and also numerated some of the health challenges associated with it.

Chukwu further said that the ministry was much involved in addressing the health challenges of albinos, especially skin cancer, and has instituted a multidisciplinary approach with some specialised health professionals, such as dermatologists, ophthalmologists, etc, in giving care to albinos in federal tertiary hospitals. He also revealed that the six teaching hospitals (National Hospital, Abuja, Lagos University Teaching Hospital, University of Nigeria Teaching Hospital, University of Maiduguri Teaching Hospital, University College Hospital, lbadan, and Ahmadu Bello Teaching Hospital, Zaria) have been designated and equipped to treat albinos with skin cancer free. These hospitals, he said, will also serve as research centres for genetic issues associated with pigment formation.

The minister urged these hospitals to establish albino outpatient clinics and also organise regular enlightenment campaigns in their local communities. He donated equipment used for treating early stages of skin cancer and sunscreen lotions to the representatives of these hospitals.

Also in attendance at the conference were the representatives of the Country Rep of UNICEF in Nigeria; Director General of National Orientation Agency; Executive Secretary of the National Human Rights Commission; President of the African Council of Optometrists; Chief Medical Directors of LUTH, Lagos, UCH, Ibadan and Usman Dan Fodio Teaching Hospital, Sokoto.