Epilepsy: Debunking Traditional Belief

Abdulhamid Al-Gazali

Sunday, 18 July 2021

The belief that Epilepsy is a contagious disease, spiritual attack or mental disease requiring psychiatry treatment is debunked by Dr Moses B. Ekong – a Neuroscientist and Senior Lecturer at University of Uyo, Nigeria and fellow of the African Science Literacy Network.


Dr Ekong said the condition is global, but even at this, the actual aetiology is not known yet, but arises due to predisposing conditions that either increased glutamate, an excitatory neurotransmitter or decreased gamma amino-butyric acid, an inhibitory neurotransmitter.'


Despite the World Health Organization's reports of 50/100,000 incidence in developed countries, and double of this in developing countries (WHO, 2019), many, especially in the latter, have poor knowledge of the cause, management and treatment of Epilepsy. There are different myths and beliefs of Epilepsy leading to other misconceptions, including bewitchment: This cut across age, race, environment and literacy level.


Dr Ekong said, ‘the environment and level of education significantly affect various aspects of knowledge, attitudes and beliefs on Epilepsy; thus, the highest level of ignorance of what Epilepsy represents and how to handle such is reported with people with no formal education and those with only basic education. 'This does not rule out the fact that even those educated still succumb to the traditional belief system,' he said.


What then is the cause, management and treatment?

In African and some Middle East countries, the misconception is that the cause is attributed to spiritual attacks, bewitchment or punishment from sin, and can be transmitted through saliva, blood or even sexual intercourse, with the majority opting for spiritual healing and use of traditional herbal medicines for treatment.

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What then is Epilepsy?

The term ‘epilepsy’ is derived from the Greek word ‘epilambanein’, meaning ‘to seize or attack’. It is a chronic non-communicable neurological disorder that can be inherited or acquired from such conditions as damages in some brain areas, including the hippocampus, and temporal and frontal lobes of the cerebrum, as a result of hippocampus sclerosis, trauma, intracranial infections and toxic agents among others. Anxiety, depression and low self-esteem are often associated with this disorder.


Epilepsy manifests as seizure, cognitive decline and unconsciousness.

'Most symptoms of Epilepsy include: convulsions of extremities or the whole body, twitching of facial muscles, temporary loss of consciousness, sudden unexpected behaviour, uncontrolled shouting and wetting oneself among others.


Epilepsy Treatment

There are several means of treating/managing epilepsy: This range from pharmacological treatments to surgery. Pharmacological treatments, which is most popular, involve the use of antiepileptic drugs. These drugs act by blocking brain sodium or calcium channels, decreasing the release of excitatory glutamate while increasing inhibitory GABA levels.


Most antiepileptic drugs reduce seizures, but nearly one in three people with epilepsy on antiepileptic drugs still show seizure activity, with some experiencing adverse antiepileptic drug effects and life-limiting cognitive and psychiatric comorbidities; which further compound seizure management. These altogether are not enough to stop their usage, as antiepileptic drugs are still the preferred choice for epilepsy treatment,' Moses explained.


Why the treatment is important

'The treatment of people with Epilepsy is to improve their quality of life, which misconception tends to erode due to the attendant superstition, discrimination and stigmatization. Stigmatization of people with Epilepsy is a given where they are misconceptions and is reported to decrease their quality of life. This may lead to depression, anxiety and psychosis.


'Since education tends to endear people to epileptics, creating awareness will help to improve their life quality.'