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Superstitious, scientific aspects of Epilepsy

BY: Philip Afeti Korto
 An epilepsy patient during a seizure
An epilepsy patient during a seizure

Epilepsy is a chronic disorder in the central nervous system hence it is also called a neurological disorder.

This disorder usually causes abnormal brain activity, leading to seizures or periodic unusual behaviour, sensations, or loss of self-awareness.

According to Deegbea, Aziato and Attiogbea (2019), epilepsy interrupts the normal electrical activity of the brain to cause seizures, and globally about 50 million people suffer from epilepsy, accounting for 0.5 per cent of the global disease burden.

Empirical studies show that about 10 million people in Africa suffer from epilepsy. The incidence of epilepsy in Ghana is comparatively higher than the same in most Sub-Sharan countries.

Arguably, epilepsy is continuously misunderstood and people living with epilepsy (PLWE) are often stigmatised. In Africa, persons with epilepsy are shunned and discriminated against in education, employment and marriage because epilepsy is often perceived as a shameful and contagious disease.

It must be clarified that epilepsy is not contagious or infectious hence a person cannot contract the condition from an epileptic person.

However, all ages, genders, races and ethnic groups are susceptible to epilepsy.

Causes, symptoms and complications

It is a fact that epilepsy has no identifiable cause. In some other people with epilepsy, however, the condition may be attributable to various germane factors such as genetic (hereditary) influences, history of head trauma, brain abnormalities (e.g. tumors or vascular malformations), infections (e.g. HIV), prenatal injury and developmental disorders such as autism.

The topmost symptom of epilepsy is seizure with widely varied symptoms. Some epileptic patients simply stare blankly for a few seconds during a seizure, while others repeatedly twist their limbs.

Having a single seizure does not necessarily mean a person has epilepsy. Diagnostically, at least two unprovoked seizures that happen at least 24-hourly are generally required to say a person has developed epilepsy.

Mindful of the fact that epilepsy is associated with abnormal brain activity, seizures affect any process the brain coordinates.

Signs of seizure and symptoms may include but not limited to momentary confusion, a staring spell, stiff muscles, uncontrollable jerking of upper and lower limbs and loss of consciousness.

However, symptoms may vary from person to person and depending on the type of seizure. Clinicians generally classify the seizures as focal or generalised.

Whereas focal seizures start in one area of the brain and can spread across the brain depending on how the electrical discharges spread, generalised seizures begin at both hemispheres of the brain.

Epileptic seizures have complications for the person living with the condition. Some of these complications may include falling, drowning, road traffic accidents, burns, pregnancy complications, emotional health issues such as depression and suicidal thoughts, recurrent seizures without regaining consciousness (status epilepticus), sudden unexpected death in epilepsy (SUDEP) and many more. It is obvious that some of the complications stated here can be life-threatening

History and superstition

Some historical accounts point to the fact that epilepsy was first described in Babylonian texts more than 3,000 years ago and ancient Greeks referred to epilepsy as the “sacred disease” because they associated epilepsy with the divine.

Romans also believed that epilepsy was contagious and they referred to an epileptic person as moonstruck.

Throughout global history and even in Ghana and other parts of Africa today, epilepsy has been linked to witchcraft, the presence of an evil spirit, or the casting of a spell on a family by someone else.

In fact, an author called Malleus Maleficarum (1494) wrote a book dubbed “The Hammer of Witches” and asserted that witches had special powers that account for epileptic seizures.

Biblical

The Bible also makes a famous reference to epilepsy by stating in the Gospel that Jesus healed the boy with seizures by driving out an evil spirit. One may refer to Mark 9:17-27 or Matthew 17: 14-18 or Luke 9:37-43.

This may explain why many modern-day Christians believe that epileptic seizures are caused by spirits rather than medical causes, especially when medicine also offers no cure for the condition.

In Christian religious circles, Saint Valentine is recognised as the patron saint for epilepsy hence every February 14, is deemed as International Epilepsy Day.

Perhaps the debatable question may be: is every epileptic seizure medical or spiritual? Did Jesus cure an epileptic seizure or a different type of seizure?

Have clinicians equally not been gifted by God to manage epileptic patients? Must contemporary clergy subject an epileptic patient to exorcism or just pray with the person?

In my scientific view, epilepsy is a common medical condition and is not caused by spiritual attacks in any way. Persons with this condition can live a normal and productive life under appropriate medical management.

Scientific

To my mind, the scientific explanation of epilepsy takes precedence over the beliefs or superstitions used over the years to diagnose and proffer cure for the condition.

It is equally true that even though science has unmasked why epilepsy occurs, there is still no known cure for it.

However, there are many medications, medical devices, and surgical options to treat epilepsy in contemporary times.

Incredible advancements in research have equally helped us understand the mechanisms that cause seizures better than at any other point in history.

Advice

Advisedly, therefore, a person suffering from epilepsy or a family that has an epileptic member must visit the hospital for proper diagnosis and appropriate management of the condition.

Some people require lifelong treatment to control seizures, but for others, the seizures eventually go away.

Some children with epilepsy may outgrow the condition with age. Above all, people living with epilepsy deserve care and compassion but not antagonism, marginalisation and stigmatisation.

The writer is a health services administrator. Email:This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.