Doctor spearheads drive to eradicate epilepsy witchcraft in Third World

Ethiopia patients in clinicA Southampton doctor is helping to eradicate the use of witchcraft as treatment for epilepsy in one of the world’s poorest countries – by giving thousands of patients access to much-needed modern medicines.

Dr Martin Prevett, a consultant neurologist at Southampton General Hospital, has been at the forefront of a treatment programme in Ethiopia since 1998 to give people in isolated rural communities access to treatment and education and prevent them seeking the help of traditional healers.

“Ethiopia has a population of about 80 million, 85% of whom live in rural communities with limited access to medical care and epilepsy is at least as common there as it is in the UK, where it affects around 600,000 people, yet the vast majority of sufferers in Ethiopia do not have access to treatment,” he explained.

“The rural poor, who are isolated and have limited access to healthcare, frequently attribute epilepsy to supernatural causes or evil spirits and most will first seek help from traditional healers, which leaves them vulnerable to permanent injury caused by untreated and ongoing seizures.”

He added: “To exacerbate the situation, many people are afraid they will ‘catch’ epilepsy if they touch somebody with the condition, so sufferers are also stigmatised and often excluded from their communities.”

Although incurable, the condition, which is caused by abnormal brain activity that forces the body to fit, can be effectively managed following diagnosis with medical treatment.

The project, known as the Southampton-Ethiopia chronic disease partnership, has so far given more than 8,000 patients access to medication in rural health centres around the cities of Jimma and Gondar, with 80% of those attending clinics seeing major reductions in their seizures and half now seizure-free.

In addition, members of the epilepsy team at University Hospital Southampton NHS Foundation Trust, have developed training materials and support an annual training programme for health centre staff.

Dr Prevett, who has now expanded the project with the help of Professor David Phillips, an endocrinologist at the Medical Research Council’s lifecourse epidemiology unit, to look at providing similar care for diabetes and cardiovascular patients, added: “The successful treatment we’ve been able to provide through our partnership has transformed the lives of many people who are now accepted in their communities and are able to lead normal lives.

“There is still much to be done, but it is hoped that the epilepsy clinics that have been established around Jimma and Gondar with the help of Southampton’s epilepsy team will serve as a model for the rest of Ethiopia and other low income countries.”

The Southampton-Ethiopia chronic disease partnership recently received a £28,000 grant from the Tropical Health and Education Trust (THET) funded by the Department for International Development (DFID) to support a training programme for more nurse-led clinics in the country.

Posted on Monday 29 July 2013