Epilepsy – most often associated with the condition where people fall down and start jerking – affects about 1 in 100, or half-a-million, people in South Africa. February 11 was International Epilepsy Day which is aimed at promoting awareness of epilepsy. One of the biggest problems people living with epilepsy face is the public’s wrong ideas about the condition and lack of acceptance.
Epilepsy is a condition that affects the brain. Every second billions of nerve cells in the brain communicate through electrical and chemical signals. A seizure is the result of sudden, abnormal signalling in the brain – likened to an electronic storm. Having a single seizure does not mean that a person has epilepsy. The condition needs to be diagnosed by a medical practitioner, usually a specialized neurologist.
There are different types of epileptic seizures besides the generalized tonic-clonic seizure described above. Sometimes only one part of the body is affected or, in a generalized absence seizure, the person stares with a blank expression for a few seconds and is unaware afterwards that it happened.
Most people with epilepsy will have their first seizure before they are 20 years old and in around two-thirds of cases, the cause is unknown. In other cases, it can be caused by lack of oxygen or injury during birth, infectious diseases, head injury, a biological disturbance in the body, or alcohol and drug abuse. People definitely do not develop epilepsy as punishment because they did something wrong or have been bewitched.
Once diagnosed and treated, most people with epilepsy can become seizure free as long as they continue with their medication. They can learn in school and work productively, and participate in most activities, including sports.
Everyone should know what to do if someone next to them suddenly has a seizure – rather than standing and staring or intervening in a way that can cause harm. Most importantly– stay calm. Seizures usually last only 2-3 minutes after which the person returns to normal, except for being very tired. Place something soft under their head and make the environment safe, by for example moving objects against which they can hurt themselves. Don’t try holding the person down or putting something in their mouth. Time the seizure – if it lasts longer than 5 minutes they should visit their health care provider if they are on treatment. Once the seizure ends, turn the person on their side until fully recovered and have someone stay with them.
If you’re a parent or teacher of a child with epilepsy you can teach them and their friends about the condition with some delightful videos produced by the International Bureau for Epilepsy. The videos feature Campi, a seahorse, who is the mascot for International Epilepsy Day. You can access the four short videos at https://www.ibe-epilepsy.org/campi/. You may also want to contact Epilepsy South Africa, a non-profit organization that provides various services to people with epilepsy. The Mpumalanga branch can be contacted at 013 254 0161 or email Mpumalanga@epilepsy.org.za