31 january 2013

Controlling parasites could reduce epilepsy in Africa

Source: Wellcome Trust

Science | Health

Photo of African child
Better maternal care could help reduce burden of epilepsy in Africa.

The prevalence of epilepsy in Africa could be substantially reduced by programmes to control parasitic diseases and access to better antenatal care, an international team of researchers has found.

Their study of over half a million people in five countries of sub-Saharan Africa is the largest study of epilepsy in this region to date, and reveals the true extent of the problem and the impact of different risk factors for the first time.

Professor Charles Newton from the Department of Psychiatry at Oxford University, who led the study, said: 'This study demonstrates that many cases of epilepsy could be entirely preventable with elimination of parasites in Africa, some of which – for example onchocerciasis – have been controlled in some areas. So in some areas the incidence of epilepsy could be reduced by 30-60% with appropriate control measures.'

The findings are published in the journal Lancet Neurology.

Epilepsy is one of the most common neurological conditions worldwide and is known to be significantly more prevalent in poorer countries and rural areas.

The study was conducted at International Network for the Demographic Evaluation of Populations and Their Health (INDEPTH) demographic surveillance sites in Kenya, South Africa, Uganda, Tanzania and Ghana. It screened 586,607 residents and identified 1,711 who were diagnosed as having active convulsive epilepsy.  

This study demonstrates that many cases of epilepsy could be entirely preventable with elimination of parasites in Africa, some of which have been controlled in some areas.

Professor Charles Newton

These individuals, along with 2,033 who did not have epilepsy, were given a questionnaire to complete about their lifestyle habits. The team also took blood samples to test for exposure to malaria, HIV and four other parasitic diseases that are common in the developing world.

The team found that adults who had been exposed to parasitic diseases were 1.5 to three times more likely to have epilepsy than those who had not. Epilepsy has previously been linked with various parasite infections but this is the first study to reveal the extent of the problem.

In children, the greatest risk factors for developing epilepsy were complications at birth and as a result of head injury. Interventions to improve maternal care could substantially reduce the prevalence of epilepsy in this region, say the authors.

The study focused on people with convulsive epilepsies as they are the most reliably detected and reported, and there remains a substantial stigma attached to patients with the disease.

'Facilities for diagnosis, treatment and on-going management of epilepsy are virtually non-existent in many of the world's poorest regions and so it’s vital that we take these simple steps to try and prevent as many cases of this debilitating disease as possible,' adds Professor Newton, who is also part of the Wellcome Trust programme at the Kenyan Medical Research Institute (KEMRI).

The study was funded by the Wellcome Trust, with support from the University of the Witwatersrand and the South African Medical Research Council.