July 7, 2010 -- Fourteen-year-old Makenzee Meaux began losing her hair five years ago after being diagnosed with alopecia areata, a baffling autoimmune disease that manifests itself by attacking hair follicles.
It started slowly, with small, patchy bald spots on her scalp. But the hair loss accelerated quickly and within a year Makenzee, who was set to begin fourth grade, lost nearly all the hair on her scalp.
"We were both so devastated," says Jennifer Meaux, Makenzee's mother, who says none of the many doctors they visited could help. "We just prayed it would grow back but it never really did."
Today Makenzee has long, flowing blonde hair and spends her days concentrating on homework, sports and playing with her friends in Crosby, Texas.
But her beautiful locks aren't the result of medical treatments – there is no reliable cure for alopecia. It's courtesy instead of an elaborate reproduction developed by Hair Club for Kids, the charitable wing of a company best-known for providing high-tech hair restoration services for adults.
"It has made a tremendous difference in Makenzee's life," says her mother, Jennifer. "She went from being afraid to leave the house to a normal teen who just loves life."
Alopecia areata sufferers have long struggled to cope with sudden and dramatic hair loss brought on by the disease. The condition affects men and women and may ultimately lead to complete scalp hair loss or even total body hair loss.
More than five million Americans - a surprising 2 percent of the population - have the disease that often forces the afflicted to hide behind ill-fitting, uncomfortable wigs, scarves or hats to disguise their hair loss.
The emotional trauma is even more acute for women and children, who are immediately confronted with a drastic change in their appearance.
Yet as alopecia gains more attention in social and medical circles, and researchers make strides in uncovering the cause, a growing number of non-surgical hair replacement options have surfaced to help sufferers combat the condition cosmetically.
Some companies are offering sophisticated hair reproductions without surgery that are nearly undetectable to the eye. Other firms have hit the market recently offering a range of custom-made hair systems designed specifically for women and children who suffer from alopecia.
Bringing Attention to Alopecia
"All young girls who have this disease should still feel like they can be a princess," says Kayla Martell, who was diagnosed with alopecia areata 10 years ago and has been nearly bald ever since.
Last month, the graceful 21-year old became an instant champion for young women stricken with the disease when she donned a blonde, shoulder-length wig and beat out 15 other contestants to be crowned Miss Delaware 2010.
Now the illness is her platform for the Miss America competition in January. She says wearing a wig presented her with a surprising opportunity to bring attention to alopecia and those diagnosed with it. Martell entered the Miss Delaware pageant four times - twice without a wig - before winning.
"I'm living proof that you can wear a beautiful wig and still be comfortable with who you are," says Martell, who volunteers at alopecia support groups and speaks at events sponsored by the National Alopecia Areata Foundation, which supports research to find a cure or treatment.
"It's my hope that the attention I receive will make a difference in the lives of any child or person who loses their hair to alopecia," she says.
Building Hair Systems
Creating non-surgical hair systems for alopecia and other hair loss patients is a complicated affair.
Hair Club for Kids employs an intricate process called Bio-Matrix in developing replacement pieces for clients such as Makenzee. The hair systems are made of real, donated hair and adhered to the scalp using safe adhesives. The hair systems can stay on the scalp for week or months at a time with maintenance akin to going to the salon every six weeks.
The hair pieces are flexible enough to allow clients to choose different styles, lengths and colors. The company targets children with alopecia and other hair disorders by providing hair restoration free of charge to kids between the ages of six and 17.
"We've helped hundreds of children and young adults with alopecia and other conditions," says Lee Zoppa, a vice president at Boca Raton, Fla.,-based Hair Club. "You can almost see the immediate difference in a child's self-esteem and personality when the hair systems are applied."
Hair Club is not alone in offering replacement systems for alopecia sufferers. Other firms are sprouting up with expanded lines of custom-made wigs and hairpieces created specifically for people with medical hair loss.
Peggy Knight's company was born of personal experience. She was diagnosed with alopecia as a teenager and lost all of her hair by age 21. She now operates Peggy Knight Solutions, a California company that develops a line of natural looking wigs for women and children who have lost their hair to alopecia and other diseases.
"Most salons and manufacturers tended to focus on the needs of men," says Knight, who has been featured on The Oprah Winfrey Show. "I wanted to help women and children because they suffer the most when they lose their hair."
Born of Personal Experience
Knight's company develops a range of authentic-looking hair pieces for women and children with total hair loss, including vacuum wigs. These are made with a hypoallergenic silicone base designed from a precise mold of a client's head.
When in place, this base creates an airtight vacuum seal without the need for tape or glue. The wigs are made from real hair intricately implanted into the silicone base, strand by strand. Knight wears one of the pieces herself.
"I've dealt with alopecia for most of my adult life so I know firsthand how important having real hair on your head can make you feel," says Knight.
Of course, even with advances in hair systems, many people with alopecia choose to go without wigs. Some are fed up with the discomfort of hairpieces while others simply reject the notion of hiding their true appearance.
For young children, adding a wig or hair piece can actually make the emotional struggle of hair loss worse, say experts.
"It is important for children to know that a parent accepts and loves them with or without hair," says Betsy Woytovich, executive director of Children's Alopecia Project, a support group devoted to children living with Alopecia. "I've seen too many cases of kids feeling like they need to hide behind or under their wigs because they don't feel beautiful or accepted without it."
"Many parents understandably panic when they see their child losing their hair," says Dr. Jerry Shapiro, an expert on alopecia and the director of the University of British Columbia Hair Clinic at the Vancouver Hospital. "But young kids tend to cope much better with their condition than their parents so I warn parents against putting wigs or hair pieces on their child simply to make themselves feel better."
Finding a Cure
Though there is no effective cure for alopecia areata, researchers from Columbia University appear to have discovered the genetic cause of the disease.
A team of researchers have linked alopecia to eight genes. They studied the genome analysis of 1,054 people with alopecia areata and 3278 people without the disorderand and found eight genes associated with alopecia were the same as other autoimmune diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis and type 1 diabetes.
This is one of the first studies to locate genes potentially linked to alopecia areata and the discovery may soon lead to new alopecia treatments, says Dr. Angela M. Christiano, the lead researcher of the study and a hair geneticist at Columbia University Medical Center.
"This means that drugs already in development for other autoimmune diseases could also be used for hair loss," Dr. Christiano says. "It's a big step forward because now we have a much better understanding of what causes the disease."
"This research is very exciting, as alopecia areata affects a huge number of people worldwide," says Vicki Kalabokes, president and CEO of the National Alopecia Areata Foundation, which funded the study. "There are very few treatments for alopecia resulting in an enormous unmet medical need."