FEATURE-On Panama islands, albinos battle a bright foe

jueves 11 de junio de 2015 08:07 GYT

By Carlos Jasso
    GUNA YALA, Panama, June 11 (Reuters) - For years, the
alabaster-skinned people born on this sun-scorched constellation
of islands off Panama's Caribbean coast have been venerated as
the Grandchildren of the Sun. 
    But that same sun - their mythic, celestial ancestor - is
also their greatest foe.
    Experts say there are hundreds of albinos among the 80,000
indigenous Guna, or Kuna, who live in Panama, nearly half on the
mainland of the Guna Yala region and three dozen of its 365
palm-speckled islands.
    There has been no census but Pascale Jeambrun, founder of
the local S.O.S Albino organization, says one in every 150 Guna
children born is albino.
    At a global level, the rate is believed to be around 1 in
    In some countries like Tanzania, albinos can be persecuted
and killed as a symbol of bad luck, or witchcraft. But the Guna
treat their albino children with love and respect.
    "As the ancestors say, it's a blessing," said Yira Boyd,
mother of 6-year-old Guna albino girl Delyane Avila, who lives
on the island of Ailigandi. "If you look after them you can
arrive at that special place in the heavens."
    Though not persecuted, Guna albinos face another threat: the
tropical sun that can cause them eye problems and skin cancers.
    More than half the region's albinos suffer some form of skin
cancer, said Jose Jons, a doctor on the island of Ustupu,
compared with an incidence of less than 1 percent in the global
population, according to World Health Organization figures.
    As modern medical knowledge about the illness has begun to
penetrate the region's atolls, reported cases of skin cancers
have risen, said Rosa Espana, head of dermatology at the
national oncology institute in Panama City.
    She now sees about three Guna albinos a week in her clinic,
about three times the number that came until three years ago.
    "Until there's a good cancer prevention campaign focused on
the Guna, or a dermatology center there, the problem is going to
keep getting worse for the Guna albinos," Espana said.
    Doctors consulted by Reuters said the number of older
albinos dying from skin cancer has been rising, but Panama's
health ministry does not keep a tally.
    The gray eyes of the Guna albinos are also vulnerable to
nystagmus, an involuntary eye movement which can impair vision.
    Because of their sensitive skin, young Guna albinos must be
shuttled to and from school, avoiding the baking heat, while
they watch their friends play in the streets.
    Albinos were not always treated well by their fellow Guna.
    After Spain colonized the region, until the end of the 19th
century, the Guna slaughtered their albinos in the misguided
belief they were related to their European rulers, said local
albino spiritual leader Maximiliano Ferrer.
    From the start of the 20th century, a spiritual reformation
blossomed among the Guna, who rediscovered their traditional
beliefs and a love of their albino offspring.
    According to local legend, the first albino sent to the Guna
people by their God, Baba or Bab Dummat, was known as Mago, and
considered the father of the sun, Ferrer said.
    Those who came after Mago are now known as the Children of
the Moon, or the Grandchildren of the Sun.
    Samuel Jimenez, a 57-year-old albino leader on the island of
Archutupu, remembers that as a child, his grandmother would make
him stay up late during a lunar eclipse to ward off a mythical
winged animal the Guna believe would try and gobble up the moon.
    "That's why we carry a bow and arrow," he said. "To shoot
the beast."

 (Writing by Gabriel Stargardter; Editing by Dave Graham and
Simon Gardner)