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Miss Delaware Goes Wigless for Alopecia Areata Awareness

Expect to hear a lot more about alopecia areata in the coming months, thanks to a remarkably brave and giving effort by Miss Delaware, Kayla Martell. As she prepares to compete in the Miss America Pageant in 2011, Martell has been very public about the fact that she has alopecia areata, which has resulted in a mostly bald scalp.

Alopecia areata is a common autoimmune skin disease that results in the loss of hair on the scalp and elsewhere on the body. According to the National Alopecia Areata Foundation, the condition affects approximately two percent of the population overall, including more than 4.7 million people in the United States alone. Alopecia areata occurs in people who are apparently healthy and have no skin disorder.

Doctors today believe alopecia areata may result from the body attacking its own hair follicles, which slows down or stops hair growth. It usually starts with hair falling out to form one or more small, round, smooth patches on the scalp. While it normally begins showing up in the late teenage years, early childhood, or young adulthood, the condition can happen with people of all ages. It can progress to total scalp hair loss (alopecia totalis) or complete body hair loss (alopecia universalis). Alopecia is not contagious but does tend to run in families.

Many of those who have the condition hide it, so when Martell competed in the Miss Delaware pageant without a wig and then took her wig off during an interview on national TV (watch the clip below) it really grabbed attention.

The real blessing of Ms. Martell’s actions is that she immediately lifted the cloud of shame that some with alopecia areata experienced. With one brave gesture, she made it okay to talk about the condition.

Investigators from Columbia University Medical Center recently identified eight genes that contribute to alopecia. Their study, published in Nature Journal, found that many genes associated with alopecia are also linked to other autoimmune disorders. Researchers expect the findings to lead to new treatments for alopecia. Current treatments include steroid injections and creams, but there is no cure at this time.

Genetic testing also is expected to help doctors more accurately determine the path the disease will take.

With Ms. Martell doing her part to raise awareness, you can expect to see efforts to find a cause and treatments accelerate in the years to come. Last week, CNN named Martell its “Breakthrough Woman” for the week: