Editorial: Ignorance is not bliss

Published in the Hindu on July 20, 2012

A Tamil Nadu university’s decision to suspend a student with leucoderma — an autoimmune disorder that leads to white patches on the skin — is a reminder of the deep roots ignorance and insensitivity have struck in the social terrain of India. One day after he joined a B. Tech course at the Kalasalingam University in Virudhunagar district, 18-year-old Ayyappan was asked to leave the institution as parents of other students had apparently objected to his presence in the class. Leucoderma, medically referred to as vitiligo, is not a contagious condition; people coming in contact with such a person run no risk of getting infected. Unfortunately, leucoderma is often confused for leprosy as white patches are seen on the skin of people with leprosy. There is more confusion in Tamil Nadu, as vitiligo is often referred to as ‘white leprosy’ (‘ven kushtam’ and ‘ven kuttam’). But the nature of the white patch is very different in both these cases. While a complete absence of melanin pigment, which gives human skin a brownish hue, causes the white patch in the case of leucoderma, a depletion of the pigment causes the white patches in leprosy. Loss of sensation and the dry nature of the patches are further indications of leprosy. Moreover, leprosy is contagious only in the untreated lepromatous form; other forms are not contagious as the bacilli remain in the nerves.

Even if the students and their parents were unaware of these differences, it is most unfortunate that the authorities too were grossly ignorant. More shocking is the fact that the authorities not only doubted the veracity of the medical certificate issued by a doctor from the Tirunelveli Medical College Hospital vouching for the student’s condition, but never cared to obtain independent expert medical opinion before taking recourse to such a drastic step. In failing to do so, the institute unwittingly became guilty of discrimination, and in the process sent a wrong message. The Tamil Nadu government on December 27, 2010 issued an important order to abandon the use of the terms ‘ven kushtam’ and ‘ven kuttam’ to reduce the confusion and consequent stigmatisation of leucoderma patients. The university has now asked the student to rejoin his classes but this incident clearly indicates that much more has to be done to destigmatise vitiligo. Much has been written about the stigma and discrimination faced by people with HIV/AIDS and an effective government-sponsored programme has gone some way towards righting that wrong. A similar awareness drive on leucoderma is clearly needed.