UCI Health recognizes National Vitiligo Day to raise awareness, offers support group

New group provides treatment education, support and advice for those with under-treated skin condition

June 20, 2017
UCI Health recognizes June 25 as National Vitiligo (vit-ill-EYE-go) Day to help raise awareness of a condition that causes the skin to lose its normal pigment, resulting in white patches, especially on the face, hands and feet. Caused by an immune system abnormality that damages skin pigment, vitiligo affects up to 4 percent of the population, or about 70 million people, worldwide. 

“Vitiligo is not life-threatening or contagious, but I’ve seen the psychologically devastating effects and hardships these patients face, from depression and social stigma over their appearance to discrimination in the workplace and problems with relationships,” said Dr. Anand Ganesan, a UCI Health dermatologist and specialist in vitiligo treatment. “We want to raise awareness of this disease and let people know that vitiligo can be treated.”

To help address this, UCI Health has partnered with vitiligo patients in Orange County to start the Orange County Vitiligo Support Group. Ganesan is the group’s physician advisor and says the effort is critical as it provides both information and emotional support for those with vitiligo.

“Recent studies have shown that such groups can be critical in improving the emotional well-being of patients afflicted by the disease,” Ganesan said.

Attendance at the quarterly support group meetings is open to anyone with this the disease, not just UC Irvine patients, he said. Updates are available at the group’s Facebook page: www.facebook.com/OCVitiligoSupport

Ganesan treats hundreds of patients with the condition, in which white patches appear when melanocytes – the cells responsible for producing the skin pigment - die off within the skin. The unpigmented skin is very sensitive to sunburn and some patients experience increased itching in affected areas.

UC Irvine is the only health system in Orange County to offer specialized treatment for vitiligo, including topical creams, vitamin regimens, immunotherapies, and the latest surgical grafting techniques to both re-pigment the skin and help prevent the spread of the disease.

He notes that some primary care physicians may not refer their patients with vitiligo to a specialist.

“There is a misunderstanding among many community physicians that there is nothing to be done to treat the condition,” Ganesan said. “It’s possible they believe this because treatments often take a long time to see success, sometimes as many as 30 treatments, and some patients see results faster than others.” 

Ganesan notes that some insurance reimbursement exists, but it is often not enough to cover the duration of treatments, which can be extensive. 

Re-pigmentation therapies include ultraviolet A and narrowband ultraviolet B light and excimer laser treatments to stimulate the melanocyte cells, which are located around hair follicles, to migrate out of the hair and into the skin. Skin grafting is another method whereby melanocyte cells can be transplanted to the skin.  

This fall, UCI Health will become the first center on the west coast to offer the Melanocyte Keratinocyte Transplantation Procedure (MKTP) to patients afflicted by vitiligo.  This revolutionary procedure has a high success rate for a select group of vitiligo patients. 

“We are also using advanced single cell genomics technologies to try to identify the melanocyte cells that re-pigment the skin after skin grafting and the factors that make them migrate,” Ganesan said. “Identification of the factors that stimulate these melanocytes to migrate could lead to the development of improved treatments for vitiligo.”

To learn more about condition, view the video produced by the Vitiligo Working Group with support from the UCI Health Department of Dermatology:

UCI Health comprises the clinical, medical education and research enterprises of the University of California, Irvine. Patients can access UCI Health at physician offices throughout Orange County and at its main campus, UC Irvine Medical Center in Orange, Calif., a 417-bed acute care hospital that provides tertiary and quaternary care, ambulatory and specialty medical clinics, and behavioral health and rehabilitation services. U.S. News & World Report has listed it among America’s Best Hospitals for 16 consecutive years. UC Irvine Medical Center features Orange County’s only National Cancer Institute-designated comprehensive cancer center, high-risk perinatal/neonatal program, Level I trauma center and Level II pediatric trauma center, and it is the primary teaching hospital for the UC Irvine School of Medicine. UCI Health serves a region of more than 3 million people in Orange County, western Riverside County and southeast Los Angeles County. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter.