Epilepsy affects over 500 000 South Africans

National Epilepsy Week runs from the 15th to the 21st of June in South Africa. Epilepsy, which is also known as a seizure disorder, is a common condition that affects the brain and nervous system. It has been estimated that approximately one South African in 100 will suffer from epilepsy at some point in their lifetime.

Dr Stan Moloabi, executive healthcare manager at the Government Employees Medical Scheme (GEMS) says that epilepsy impacts hundreds of thousands of people of all races and backgrounds in South Africa. For this reason, he urges everyone to learn about this medical condition and what to do in the event that someone they know has a seizure.

"Many of us are likely to come across someone who is epileptic, or having a seizure at some point in our lives," he adds. "Seizures may have many different causes and anyone could suffer one at some point in their lives. South Africans should keep this in mind before judging those who suffer a seizure or from epilepsy. Many of the nation's most loved and highly successful individuals are epileptic."

Read: Epilepsy explained

What is a seizure?

A seizure is a surge of electrical activity in the brain that affects how a person feels or acts for a time. It can take many different forms and can affect different people in diverse ways. Some seizures are mild; the person may just feel absent for a second or two and not even notice that they have had a seizure. In other, more major seizures, the individual may lose consciousness, their body may become rigid or stiff and they may make fast jerking movements.

"There is approximately an 80% chance that an individual who has had two seizures will have more. If the cause of the seizure is not associated with a withdrawal from drinking alcohol or other factors that may cause seizures such as blood sugar problems, the person may be diagnosed with epilepsy," adds Dr Moloabi.

"Some people may suffer from epilepsy that is very disabling and has a major impact on their lives," says Dr Moloabi. "They may suffer from severe seizures on a regular basis making it difficult for them to hold down a job and live a normal life. Fortunately such cases are relatively uncommon today and our experience with GEMS members confirms that epilepsy can be managed and controlled with medicines or other medical treatments in the great majority of cases."

Read: Is epilepsy fatal?

Some of the causes and risk factors for seizures include:

- Genetic factors - epilepsy may be inherited

- Infections of the brain such as meningitis and encephalitis

- Tumours

- AIDS and AIDS-related neurological conditions

- Developmental neurological disorders such as cerebral palsy

- Chemical imbalances in the brain caused by conditions such as low blood sugar and diabetes

- Withdrawal from alcohol

- Use of certain street drugs

- Exposure to toxins, such as lead or carbon monoxide

Epilepsy is usually treated with the use of medicines known as anticonvulsants. In some cases treating the underlying medical condition that is causing the seizures may help to control the epilepsy. For example, the successful removal of a brain tumour or control of diabetes may stop an individual from suffering convulsions.

"Fully blown seizures tend to come on very suddenly and can be quite startling, even frightening, to those who witness them," advises Dr Moloabi. "Many people consequently have no idea how to deal with such a situation. There are also a number of misconceptions about how a seizure patient should be handled."

Read: Stigma haunts those living with epilepsy


- Do your best to stay calm. Understanding what is taking place should help you to do this.

- Try to prevent injury by ensuring that there is nothing nearby or within reach that could harm the person.

- Be sure to keep yourself out of harm's way if the individual is thrashing and writhing around vigorously. There is no need to try and restrain anyone who is having a seizure.

- Call emergency services.

- Do not put anything in the person's mouth.

- Once the individual's seizure has stopped place them in the recovery position. Turn the person's head so any vomit can easily drain from their mouth and make sure they are breathing normally.

- Do not give the person liquids, medication or food until they are fully alert.

- Stay with the person until he or she recovers, which should be within five to 20 minutes.

"Remember that the great majority of epileptics respond well to treatment, so anyone who is suffering from the condition should be encouraged to visit their doctor. Medical schemes such as GEMS provide cover for the diagnosis and treatment of epilepsy, " concludes Dr Moloabi.

Read more:

Chilean moms use cannabis oil to treat kids'epilepsy

High fat, low carb diet may help epilepsy

Many with autism have treatment-resistant epilepsy

Image: Brain diagram in human head on black background from Shutterstock

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