- Education and Science
Butterfly Children: The Horrors of Dystrophic Epidermolysis Bullosa (DEB)
A Small Who Suffers from DEB
Imagine if your skin could be damaged by the slightest touch and you had to spend your entire life covered in bandages completely dependent on the assistance of other people. So is the life of those who suffer from Epidermolysis Bullosa Dystrophica (DEB), a genetic disorder whose most prominent symptom is incredibly fragile skin that blisters constantly. Young sufferers are often referred to as "Butterfly children" because their skin is considered to be delicate like the wings of a butterfly or moth. The most severe of the three types of DEB (see below) occurs in less than one out of every million births in the United States.
Dystrophic Epidermolysis Bullosa (DEB) is a very severe subtype of Epidermolysis Bullosa (EB). The associated ailments can vary. In the most severe of the three major types of DEB, Autosomal Recessive Dystrophic Epidermolysis Bullosa (ARDEB), blistering plagues the entire body, especially areas victim to even the mildest physical trauma. The constant blistering and healing covers the body with prominent scars.
Complications of this genetic disease can lead to blindness and severe disfigurement in the form of fused fingers and toes from the trauma caused simply by having so many moveable joints in one part of the body. The skin of the hands and feet has to heal itself so many times throughout the course of a DEB patient’s life that they are eventually healed together and are no longer functional
People affected with this condition rarely live past thirty years of age as the constant damage to their skin often leads to a particularly aggressive form of skin cancer known as Squamous Cell Carcinoma (SCC). People afflicted with this severe form of DEB also suffer generally poor health and stunted development as their scarred mouths and esophagi struggle to properly chew and swallow food. They also typically have immense difficulty sleeping as people so severely afflicted are virtually immobile lest they move and tear their incredibly fragile skin which is highly susceptible to infection and may or may not heal at all once damaged. Sufferers are also subject to chronic fatigue due to iron-deficiency anemia, the reason for which is still unknown.
Mutations in the COL7A1 gene cause all three forms of DEB
Jonny Kennedy (1966 to 2003) is an example of the horrors of DEB. He was the subject of The Boy Whose Skin Fell Off, a British documentary of the final months of his life during which he makes the most of his time left to live and puts his affairs in order after being diagnosed with terminal skin cancer caused by his severe affliction. We see him suffer immensely throughout the documentary which is available for viewing on YouTube. In a particularly difficult scene, we see him cry in pain as his mother performs the weekly removal of old bandages to apply new ones to his raw and bleeding back. Kennedy attests to the severe discomfort he has to suffer every day and claims that sleep and mental escapism are his only means of dealing with it.
Another demonstration of the severity of DEB, Kennedy was born with no skin on his left leg. It is disturbingly common for those afflicted for a significant amount of skin to be torn off due to the typical rigours of childbirth. At the time of his birth, there was no prenatal screening for DEB. Today it is common practice to terminate pregnancies when prenatal testing confirms that the child is afflicted with DEB in order to spare him or her the lifetime of constant pain and suffering the disease entails.