Raymond Hernandez is just like any other student on Florida A&M University’s campus. He is funny, laid back and likes to excel in his classes. What makes the biology student from West Palm Beach stand out is that he is one of the few students that has vitiligo.
“Actually I was the first to notice a spot and I kept it to myself because I thought it was one of those things that all young men get,” Hernandez said. “So, I kept it to myself thinking it was normal and it would go away on its own and that didn’t happen. It just kept developing and spreading.”
Vitiligo is an autoimmune disease that causes the cells that produce melanin to die or stop functioning which results in white patches on the skin and hair. Since melanin determines the color of the hair and skin, the rate of color loss is unpredictable. According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, vitiligo affects between 0.5 percent and 1 percent of the
population worldwide and is seen in both men and women at the same rate. Though it is more noticeable in darker skin, it affects all ethnic groups at the same rate.
The exact cause of vitiligo is unknown and there are currently no cures available to stop the spreading. Though the disease is not painful, it can cause psychological effects that may lead to depression, low self-esteem and even suicide.
Effects like these are what caused Natasha Pierre McCarthy to find the National Vitiligo Bond Inc. Foundation. The Atlanta based non-profit organization provides support, resources and information to help bridge the gap between those who and do not have vitiligo. Having vitiligo herself, McCarthy understands the common misconceptions surrounding the disease.
“Vitiligo support is important because it bridges the gap between the community and people with vitiligo with other community leaders that can support the support group,” McCarthy said. “The most common myth is that it is contagious. When people see the white patches [they think they are] burns. Most often times people think it’s ugly,”
Those affected by vitiligo may choose to offset the attention they may encounter by covering their body with clothes or cosmetic products. Hernandez recalled the moment he decided to stop hiding his vitiligo.
“When I did first get vitiligo, I kept it to myself, I tried to cover it up as much as possible and that happened throughout all of 10th grade and all of 11th grade, and 12th grade came around and [I remember thinking] ‘I’m tired of doing this, I’m tired of wearing clothes to cover it up, I’m tired of just like hiding and not being myself.’ So 12th grade I decided ‘You know what, I’m just going to reveal it.’”
Though the most prominent public figure to have vitiligo was Michael Jackson, within the past few years, celebrities such as Chantelle Brown-Young model and acclaimed ballet dancer Michaela DePrince have emerged. Veterinary medicine student Meghan Campbell hopes that more people with vitiligo are shown in the media.
“If they see someone the same as them, [those with vitiligo] won’t feel discouraged rather than see someone who is not the same as them,” Campbell said.
Hernandez credits his relationship with his mother, God, along with his friends and family in helping him stay confident and motivated on days he feels down. He wants others who may be dealing with the emotional effects of vitiligo to embrace who they are despite what society may think.
“I feel like I have something unique. Not too many people have vitiligo and I was the first in my family to have vitiligo, so in a way it’s like I’m getting recognition”, Hernandez said. “Even though I have white spots, it’s more noticeable, more attention seeking so that’s my way of reclaiming it.”
To learn more about how to support those with vitiligo visit http://vitiligobond.org