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Understanding Epilepsy

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Understanding Epilepsy

What epilepsy is?

The equivalent of the word epilepsy in Shona is pfari or izithuthwane in Ndebele. “Epilepsy” describes a tendency to recurrent seizures or ‘fits’. This results from the disturbances in the normal electrical activity of the brain. The nature of the fit will depend on the part of the brain first affected, and on where and how fast the disturbance spreads. There are many kinds of epilepsy and seizures.

Epilepsy is not a disease, nor is it a mental illness. Between fits the brain works quite normally. It is a medical condition with various consequences. Apart from the physical challenges it present, it brings psychosocial problems of stigma, discrimination and low self esteem. Epilepsy can affect people of all levels of intelligence. Epilepsy observes no social, racial or geographical boundaries. Anyone may develop epilepsy at any age or place.

Basic symptoms and signs

A person with epilepsy will experience seizures normally described as

  1. ‘Falling’ (sudden falling followed by uncontrollable jerking)
  2. ‘Fainting‘ or stiffening of the body
  3. Fits or convulsions (jerking of one part or side of the body
  4. Recurring but temporary ‘blackouts’ with memory, body movement, sensation [seeing, hearing, smelling, feeling and tasting], behaviour or concentration)

The causes of epilepsy

Epilepsy can be caused by scarred brain tissue (resulting from head injury at birth or in an accident, or from battering.), by brain damage caused by infections and fevers, by tumours, by bio-chemical abnormalities (e.g. low blood glucose or calcium levels) and by hormonal changes. In many cases however and the person may have inherited a brain that is highly sensitive and has a low seizure threshold (ability to resist seizures is low).no cause can be identified.

Basic facts
  • Epilepsy is not infectious or contagious. It is a treatable medical condition. People with epilepsy should visit the nearest health centre.
  • Over 2% of people in Zimbabwe have epilepsy. This means above 260 000 Zimbabweans are living with this condition. Globally, 50 million people live with it, 10 million are in Africa.
  • In most cases seizures due to epilepsy can be effectively controlled by taking medication.
  • There are more than 20 different types of epileptic seizures.
  • Anyone can have epilepsy, whatever their age, race, sex or level of intelligence.
  • 75% of people with epilepsy have their first seizure by the age of 20.
  • There are a number of possible causes for epilepsy. Some causes can be easily identified, but sometimes no cause can be discovered.
  • Some people get a warning of a seizure, so can get to a safe place.
  • Most seizures are over quickly and are easily dealt with.
  • It is not a mental illness.
  • Many famous people had epilepsy e.g. Julius Caesar, Van Gogh, Jonty Rhodes.
  • You do not need to call an ambulance when a person with epilepsy has a seizure, unless one seizure follows another, or if a seizure lasts more than 10 minutes or an injury needs medical attention.
  • You shouldn’t put anything in a person’s mouth when they are having a generalized seizure.
  •  People with epilepsy can live normal and productive lives.
  • It is a myths to think that a person with epilepsy will not be treatable after getting burns
  • Most people spend valuable time getting alternative treatments based on culture, religion or advice from the village but by the time they turn for medical treatment, the condition may have caused a lot of harm.
  • Epilepsy can cause several disabilities, can reduce the quality of life of people and their families and can result in death (due to injuries, risks etc) if not appropriately managed.

First aid for epilepsy

A person having a major epileptic fit loses consciousness and falls to the ground. Violent jerking of the body may occur. Recovery normally happens by its self. First aid seeks to avoid injury, lessen the burden of injuries if they occur and reduce stigma and fear (by helping a person having a seizure, you become an example to the world sending a message that epilepsy is not infectious and people with epilepsy deserve to be helped when need arises by dutiful citizens like yourself)


What to do

  1. Keep calm and reassure everyone around.
  2. Note the time: a Doctor may need to know exactly when the seizure started. Observe the seizure carefully: the information may be valuable.
  3. Do not move the person unless he/she is in danger (e.g. at the top of stairs, at the edge of a swimming pool or near a fire)
  4. Put something soft under the person’s head (e.g. a rolled jersey or a firm cushion)
  5. Loosen clothing around the neck and make sure that the breathing airways are clear.
  6. Do not try to restrict the person. Let the seizure take its natural course. Keep a clear space around the person.
  7. Do not put or force anything into the mouth or attempt to give anything to drink.
  8. As soon as possible turn the person on to his/her side into a shock recovery position so that the mouth can drain saliva, blood or vomit.
  9. Reassure the person during the period of confusion that follows the regaining of consciousness.
  10. Give the person an opportunity to rest.
  11. Let the person and anyone responsible for them that the person has had a seizure and encourage them to seek, keep or review treatment at the clinic.

N. B. There is no need to call the parents, a doctor or ambulance unless one seizure follows another without full recovery in between, or unless the child remains unconscious for much longer than is usual for him/her.

This valuable information was provided by the Epilepsy Support Foundation.

Contact details:

Nicholas George Epilepsy Centre 43 St David Road Hatfield Harare Zimbabwe

Tel: 04-2922806, 04-571225

Fax: 04-571233 (currently not working) Cell: 0913595241/5, Clinic 0913595248, Counselling 0913595246


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