Atopic dermatitis (AD) is an inflammatory condition that affects the largest organ of your body — your skin — making it red, dry, and itchy
While it can occur at any age, AD is a severe type of eczema that typically presents itself in early childhood. Some grow out of the condition, but others continue to experience symptoms of AD into adulthood.
It's characterised as a chronic (long-lasting) condition with no known cure, which means people diagnosed with AD tend to experience flare-ups that come and go throughout their lives.
On a tangible front, living with AD often includes sleepless nights dealing with extremely itchy, flaky skin that disrupts the lives of many, in more ways than one
For people who actively suffer from AD, even the slightest movements, like simply getting out of bed, can cause skin to flake off or crack and bleed.
It's a reality that's unthinkable for many, even before taking into account the seemingly never-ending cycle of itch-scratch that results in raw, bloody skin. Sounds painful enough, doesn't it? :(
However, adding to the damage is the hidden mental toll that this chronic inflammatory condition takes on people with AD
Imagine having to steer clear of activities like swimming, hiking, or joining your friends for PE in school because your skin gets sensitive to sweat — and temperature changes — in the environment.
Or worse, you get teased for how your skin appears, and feel isolated from the rest of your peers, despite the fact that AD is not contagious, nor is there an exact known cause for the condition.
In short, AD not only affects physical health but also mental health, which is why the Dermatological Society of Malaysia has teamed up with local comic artist, Erica Eng, to help debunk myths surrounding the condition
In conjunction with World Atopic Dermatitis Day (also known as World Atopic Eczema Day) on 14 September, the award-winning comic artist, who suffers from AD herself, developed a webcomic series for the #UncoverLife – Atopic Dermatitis, More Than Skin Deep campaign.
Catch Erica's experience with AD below:
According to the president of the Dermatological Society of Malaysia, Dato' Dr Noor Zalmy Azizan, there is a need for awareness since misconceptions about AD can get in the way of people seeking medical advice and treatment
"By presenting the condition in a visual and easy-to-understand medium, we hope more patients will seek proper diagnosis and care so they can experience better quality of life and support from others. This is why our campaign name is also a call to action, for patients with atopic dermatitis to #UncoverLife," said Dato' Dr Noor Zalmy.
The campaign, also in collaboration with the Malaysia Eczema Society, follows a report based on a series of roundtable discussions involving healthcare professionals and patients from November 2019 to April 2021
It revealed that low awareness and persistent misconceptions contribute to delayed diagnosis and poor management of AD in Malaysia.
While well-meaning, it's hard to distinguish practical advice from ones based on myths perpetuated online, where AD is usually labelled as a simple skin condition that can be easily cured with home remedies.
Plus, consultant paediatric dermatologist and advisor to the patient support group at Malaysia Eczema Society, Dr Leong Kin Fon, also explained that other misconceptions — like the misguided belief that AD is contagious or caused by poor hygiene — not only cause people with AD to be treated like outcasts, but also take a heavy toll on their mental health.
"This is why patients need more understanding and support, which should come from a consolidated source such as a national patient support group that consists of fellow patients, with advice from a relevant medical body such as the Dermatological Society of Malaysia," said Dr Leong.
In one of the comics, Erica illustrates the experience lived by fellow AD-afflicted person, Iris
Iris was only properly diagnosed with AD as an adult. However, she long began noticing that people would look at her differently due to the scaly skin on her legs, and was often teased by the other children at school who said she looked like a snake.
After a particularly bad flare-up in her early 20s, and multiple unsuccessful treatments that ranged from steroids to traditional remedies, Iris knew she had to put an end to the nightmare that she was living
So, she left her job and took time off to prioritise her mental health and learn more about self-care
Eventually, Iris met with a dermatologist and finally felt the heavy burden of her symptoms slide off her shoulders
In the comic, Erica also shines a spotlight on the journeys of Shomendra and Elaine, to further prove that patients can #UncoverLife, especially with proper treatment and a strong support system
Sharing powerful messages from people living with AD, consultant dermatologist and EXCO member of the Dermatological Society of Malaysia, Dr Peter Ch'ng, said that the webcomic empowers other individuals with AD to seek help and support to manage their condition
According to Dr Ch'ng, "As atopic dermatitis is a complex condition that affects each patient differently, patients with moderate-to-severe atopic dermatitis may benefit from additional forms of therapy, such as biologics, that are prescribed by specialists."
He added, "This underscores the importance of diagnosis and treatment, without which patients may not experience significant improvement in the severity of their symptoms."
As the campaign aims to rally patients, caregivers, and healthcare professionals to break free from the condition, Erica hopes that her comics will give a better understanding of how patients feel and the challenges they face with AD
As the 22-year-old comic creator puts it, "My experience allowed me to empathise with the patients whose stories are told in the webcomics, and it is my honour to be able to help spread awareness about atopic dermatitis while sharing their insights about living with the disease and how it impacts them."
Visit a dermatologist to learn more about managing AD. You can find one closest to you at Dermatological Society of Malaysia.
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