"I do not want to talk about my condition as there is a stigma attached to epilepsy, particularly within my culture. I recently heard of a woman who was thrown out of a taxi while having a epileptic seizure and it really frightens me that such a thing could happen to me too,” said Thembi, a twenty-five-year old woman from Johannesburg who suffers from epilepsy.
“You never know how someone will react if they hear you are epileptic and I am therefore too embarrassed to discuss it with anyone other than my colleagues who were with me when I had my first seizure six months ago at work," added Thembi, who preferred not to give her full name.
Dr David Anderson, a neurologist and epilepsy expert who practises at Netcare Milpark Hospital, says there are a number of misconceptions about epilepsy. He confirms that some South Africans look down on, and even discriminate against those who suffer from it.
“This is unfortunate particularly as anyone could conceivably develop the condition or even have less severe epilepsy without being aware of it. Epilepsy is simply a medical condition and it can be successfully treated and managed in the great majority of cases,” advises Dr Anderson.
Dr Anderson, who runs the Epilepsy Monitoring Unit Netcare Milpark Hospital, says that epilepsy is a fairly common medical condition with some 60 million people around the world suffering from it. It has been estimated that some 5% of people will have at least one seizure in their lifetime, and as many as 1 in 100 South Africans will develop epilepsy at some point in their lives.
He points out that some great South Africans are epileptic including ex-Protea cricket player Jonty Rhodes and musician Vusi Mahlasela. American rap artist Lil Wayne has also said that he is an epileptic. This, however, is cold comfort for someone like Thembi who is struggling to come to grips with her condition.
“I had three major epileptic seizures at work and am sometimes scared to think I could have this condition. However, I am happy to say that soon after I started receiving treatment for it I had no further problems whatsoever,” she added.
Epilepsy is a neurological condition that affects the brain and nervous system. It can cause people to suffer from seizures or convulsions. A seizure is a sudden surge of electrical activity in the brain that usually affects how a person feels or acts for a short time. It is typically defined as a sudden alteration of behaviour due to a temporary change in the electrical functioning of the brain.
Seizures can take on many different forms and can affect different people in different ways. In a major grand mal seizure — also known as a generalised tonic-clonic seizure — the individual suffers a loss of consciousness and may have violent muscle contractions. Such a seizure will always come as a shock to onlookers who have never experienced it before.
According to Dr Anderson, seizures are not a disease in themselves, but are instead a symptom of one of many possible different disorders that can affect the brain. Some seizures can hardly be noticed, while others are totally disabling. Epilepsy is not confined to any race or age group.
“Epilepsy is usually diagnosed after a person has had at least two seizures that were not caused by some known condition like alcohol withdrawal or extremely low blood sugar,” says Dr Anderson.
“Sometimes, according to the International League Against Epilepsy, epilepsy can be diagnosed after one seizure, if a person has a condition that places them at high risk for having another. The seizures in epilepsy may be related to a brain injury, a family tendency or diabetes but often the cause is unknown.
When encountering someone having a major grand mal seizure many people feel ill equipped to handle the circumstance. However, one should try to keep in mind that the seizure will in all likelihood stop soon and to stay calm. The following tips below are simple, common sense steps to take when responding to a person having a seizure:
- Stay calm;
- Prevent injury - ensure that there is nothing within reach that could harm the person;
- Make the person as comfortable as possible;
- Do not hold the person down. If the person having a seizure has violent muscle contractions or convulsions there is no need for you to restrain them. Remember to consider your safety as well;
- Do not put any objects in the person's mouth;
- Keep onlookers away;
- Call the Netcare 911 emergency service on 082 911;
- Do not give the person water, pills, or food until they are fully alert; and
- Be sensitive and supportive, and ask others to do the same.
After the seizure, the person should be placed on their left side in the so-called ‘recovery position’. Make sure that there no obstructions in the mouth or throat that may be restricting breathing. Keep in mind there is a small risk of post-seizure vomiting before the person is fully alert. Therefore, the person’s head should be turned to one side so that any vomit will drain out of the mouth without being inhaled. Stay with the person until he or she recovers, which should be within five to 20 minutes.
Many seizure types such as generalised absence seizures or complex partial seizures involve relatively brief episodes of unresponsiveness and do not require any specific first-aid measures.
The Epilepsy Monitoring Unit at Netcare Milpark Hospital is a state-of-the-art facility used for the diagnosis and management of epilepsy. Advanced technologies such as video electroencephalograms (EEG) are used to monitor electrical activity in the brain and assist in diagnosis and treatment.
“Most epileptics respond well to treatment, so sufferers should be sure to get to their doctor or a neurologist. Help and support is available to sufferers and their families through facilities such as the Epilepsy Monitoring Unit at Netcare Milpark Hospital and organisations such as Epilepsy South Africa,” concludes Netcare Milpark Hospital general manager Anton Gillis.
Issued by: Martina Nicholson Associates (MNA) on behalf of Netcare Milpark Hospital
Contact : Martina Nicholson, Graeme Swinney, Sarah Wilson or Meggan Saville
Telephone: (011) 469 3016
Email: [email protected], [email protected], [email protected] or [email protected]