Key facts

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Key facts

  • Epilepsy is a chronic noncommunicable disease of the brain that affects people of all ages.
  • Around 50 million people worldwide have epilepsy, making it one of the most common neurological diseases globally.
  • Nearly 80% of people with epilepsy live in low- and middle-income countries.
  • It is estimated that up to 70% of people living with epilepsy could live seizure- free if properly diagnosed and treated.
  • The risk of premature death in people with epilepsy is up to three times higher than for the general population.
  • Three quarters of people with epilepsy living in low-income countries do not get the treatment they need.
  • In many parts of the world, people with epilepsy and their families suffer from stigma and discrimination.

Epilepsy is a chronic noncommunicable disease of the brain that affects around 50 million people worldwide. It is characterized by recurrent seizures, which 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. Different parts of the brain can be the site of such discharges. Seizures can vary from the briefest lapses of attention or muscle jerks to severe and prolonged convulsions. Seizures can also vary in frequency, from less than 1 per year to several per day.

One seizure does not signify epilepsy (up to 10% of people worldwide have one seizure during their lifetime). Epilepsy is defined as having two or more unprovoked seizures. Epilepsy is one of the world’s oldest recognized conditions, with written records dating back to 4000 BC. Fear, misunderstanding, discrimination and social stigma have surrounded epilepsy for centuries. This stigma continues in many countries today and can impact on the quality of life for people with the disease and their families.

Signs and symptoms

Characteristics of seizures vary and depend on where in the brain the disturbance first starts, and how far it spreads. Temporary symptoms occur, such as loss of awareness or consciousness, and disturbances of movement, sensation (including vision, hearing and taste), mood, or other cognitive functions.

People with epilepsy tend to have more physical problems (such as fractures and bruising from injuries related to seizures), as well as higher rates of psychological conditions, including anxiety and depression. Similarly, 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 great 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.

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