International Epilepsy Day: Raising Awareness and Fighting Stigma
WHO: As a global community, we can work together to reduce the burden of epilepsy and improve the lives of millions of people worldwide.
International Epilepsy Day is celebrated annually on the second Monday of February to raise awareness about epilepsy, a chronic noncommunicable disease of the brain that affects people of all ages. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), around 50 million people worldwide have epilepsy, making it one of the most common neurological diseases globally. The aim of International Epilepsy Day is to educate people about the condition and to provide information about how to treat it.
The seizures that are characteristic of epilepsy are brief episodes of involuntary movement that may involve a part of the body (partial) or the entire body (generalized) and are sometimes accompanied by loss of consciousness and control of bowel or bladder function. Seizure episodes are a result of excessive electrical discharges in a group of brain cells. Seizures can vary in frequency, from less than one per year to several per day.
Epilepsy is one of the world's oldest recognized conditions, with written records dating back to 4000 BCE. Fear, misunderstanding, discrimination, and social stigma have surrounded epilepsy for centuries. This stigma continues in many countries today and can impact the quality of life for people with the disease and their families.
Image by Hal Gatewood
The risk of premature death in people with epilepsy is up to three times higher than in the general population, with the highest rates of premature mortality found in low- and middle-income countries and in rural areas. A significant proportion of the causes of death related to epilepsy, especially in low- and middle-income countries, are potentially preventable, such as falls, drowning, burns, and prolonged seizures.
Epilepsy accounts for a significant proportion of the world's disease burden, affecting around 50 million people worldwide. The estimated proportion of the general population with active epilepsy (i.e. continuing seizures or with the need for treatment) at a given time is between 4 and 10 per 1000 people.
Globally, an estimated 5 million people are diagnosed with epilepsy each year. In high-income countries, there are estimated to be 49 per 100,000 people diagnosed with epilepsy each year. In low- and middle-income countries, this figure can be as high as 139 per 100,000. This is likely due to the increased risk of endemic conditions such as malaria or neurocysticercosis; the higher incidence of road traffic injuries; birth-related injuries; and variations in medical infrastructure, the availability of preventive health programs, and accessible care. Close to 80% of people with epilepsy live in low- and middle-income countries.
Epilepsy is not contagious, and although many underlying disease mechanisms can lead to epilepsy, the cause of the disease is still unknown in about 50% of cases globally. The causes of epilepsy are divided into the following categories: structural, genetic, infectious, metabolic, immune, and unknown. Brain damage from prenatal or perinatal causes, such as a loss of oxygen or trauma during birth or low birth weight, is an example of a structural cause. Congenital abnormalities or genetic conditions with associated brain malformations are another. A severe head injury, a stroke that restricts the amount of oxygen to the brain, or an infection of the brain such as meningitis, encephalitis, or neurocysticercosis, are examples of infectious causes.
Seizures can be controlled, and up to 70% of people living with epilepsy could become seizure-free with the appropriate use of antiseizure medicines. Discontinuing antiseizure medicine can be considered after two years without seizures and should take into account relevant clinical, social, and personal factors. A documented etiology of the seizure and an abnormal electroencephalography (EEG) pattern are the two most consistent predictors of seizure recurrence.
International Epilepsy Day is an opportunity to raise awareness of epilepsy, which is a chronic noncommunicable disease of the brain that affects people of all ages. Epilepsy is characterized by recurrent seizures, which can vary in duration, frequency, and intensity. Stigma, misunderstanding, and discrimination surrounding epilepsy continue to exist in many parts of the world, which can impact the quality of life of people with the disease and their families.
Early diagnosis, proper treatment, and ongoing care can help control seizures and improve the lives of people with epilepsy. However, nearly 80% of people with epilepsy live in low- and middle-income countries, where three-quarters may not receive the treatment they need due to a lack of resources and infrastructure.
WHO and its partners are taking action to improve the ability of health workers to diagnose epilepsy, increase the availability of medicines, and conduct research on the health and social care response to epilepsy. WHO also recognizes the need to address the social and economic factors that contribute to the epilepsy treatment gap, including stigma and discrimination.
By raising awareness of epilepsy and advocating for increased access to care, we can help ensure that people with epilepsy receive the support and treatment they need to live seizure-free lives.