Georgia Dunford was six months old when her mother, Hayley, noticed a small white spot on her chubby little thigh.
“She’d recently had nappy rash so badly that she’d had blisters, so I just shoved it off as that,” she told Mamamia. “I just figured it was a chafe mark.”
As months went on, the mark spread wider and wider, and by the time the little girl turned three, it was covering her groin. It was then a doctor gave a diagnosis: vitiligo. It was a word Hayley had never before heard.
More than one million people worldwide – including 300,000 Australians – live with vitiligo; a condition in which the cells that make pigment (melanocytes) in the skin are destroyed. There’s no physical pain or discomfort – just defined white patches across various parts of the body.
As dermatologist Dr Phillip Artemi, Founder and Director of the Vitiligo Center Australia and Head of Vitligo Surgery at the Skin Hospital, Westmead, explained to Mamamia, it’s “a young person’s disease”. Some 50 per cent of patients present before the age of 20, and 80 per cent before 30. But symptoms generally first appear in childhood.
“Because you don’t feel anything, it’s often not diagnosed until later. [The de-pigmented areas] are thought to be an injury or a scratch,” he said. “But as more lesions evolve, the penny ultimately drops, and time is wasted if people aren’t aware of what could be done for it.”
There is no definite cause and no known cure, but there are treatment options available to reduce the appearance of the condition and, as Dr Artemi described it, “put the brakes” on its progression. These are tailored to the individual patient, but include topical creams, immunosupressant treatment, light therapy and even dietary supplements including ginko biloba, antioxidants and alpha lipoic acid.
But it's not the physical aspect - the appearance - of her daughter's vitiligo that concerns Hayley Dunford. It's the way other people, especially her peers, may respond to it.
Now in Year One, six-year-old Georgia's vitiligo has spread to her ankles, her knees, up her back, on her stomach and it's starting to appear on her face.
"At the moment we've only had questions, which is OK - kids are just like that," Hayley said. "And we've taught her from a very young age [how to respond]. We call them 'patchies', so she goes, 'They're my patchies, and they're beautiful.'"
But Hayley knows that as her classmates get older, their curiosity may be replaced by cruelty.
"I'm concerned that it's going to turn into full-blown bullying, that they'll be picking on her, making her feel an inch tall," she said.
Hayley is currently attempting to seek the services of a child psychologist, but availability is limited and sessions are costly. In the meantime, Hayley is relying on Georgia's network of friends and her teachers for support, and is helping to prepare her little girl in whatever way she can for what may lie ahead.
"But we're at a roadblock, because we don't really know what to say to her to prepare her," Hayley said. "We don't have the tools or the resources to find ways to help her, really. It's pretty messed up. It makes me feel like a bad parent, because I don't know what to do."
According to Dr Artemi, a holistic approach - including mental health support - is vital when treating patients with vitiligo.
"People just think it's a cosmetic problem, but it goes a lot deeper than that," he said. "We know that more than 50 per cent of people [with vitiligo] are suffering depression, they suffer low self-esteem."
A big part of reducing this burden, Dr Artemi said, is increasing awareness. Georgia's class, for example, have been asked do homework on the condition for today - World Vitiligo Day.
This simple act means the world to the Dunfords.
"I almost cried when [the Principal] told me the idea," Hayley said. "When the kids sit down with their parents to look it up and read about it for school, they're all going to get a better understanding of what vitiligo is, which in turn raises awareness and understand and acceptance.
"Georgia is just on cloud nine. She loves it."
For more information about vitiligo, visit the Vitiligo Centre Australia website.