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EPILEPSY: Mystic Or Natural? 

By Leocadia Bongben

In certain areas of Cameroon, epilepsy – a brain disorder involving repeated, spontaneous brain seizure – is believed can be “thrown” mystically on someone.

Mirabel Betala, 28, with two kids, fell on her six-month-old baby and almost suffocated the baby, but for the timely intervention of her mother. She cannot get a husband because every man knows her illness. All they do is lure her into bed with fake marriage promises and off they go.
However, the African Declaration for the Fight against Epilepsy calls for the abolition of stigmatisation and mockery towards epileptic persons.

Betala was in secondary school when she started throwing objects while working, little did her parents know this was the early stage of epilepsy. As her mother, Prudence Abena, narrates, she had Betala as a teenage single parent. Abena’s aunt decided that she should come and live with her, and when the child was five, the aunt told her to leave the child with her, to search for a means of livelihood.

The aunt started showing off with the girl (Betala), fair and beautiful, mocking at her co-wives because she had the most beautiful girl. These women felt slighted and hurt and promised to teach her a lesson. One day, Betala actually gave a loud cry, pissed on her body, her tongue hanging put and she was foaming in the mouth, coupled with blank staring, lips smacking and jerky movements of the arms and legs.

“This is how epilepsy was thrown on my daughter”, the mother concluded in tears. Like Betala, stories of how epilepsy started in many persons in certain regions of Cameroon abound with some persons confessing to have thrown epilepsy on others.  Some claim they know the persons that threw epilepsy on them.

Against this background, Olivier Ndongo, one of the villagers in Monatele, a village in the outskirts of Yaounde, told The Post, “we all know how to throw epilepsy and we are all epileptic”. In this area, the population holds that this illness can be ‘thrown’ on a person mystically through food items like groundnuts and banana.

To ‘protect’ the children, a black thread is tied to one of Mireille Abanda’s ankles, like most children of her age. A traditional healer, Dr. Fai Fominyen, adheres to this theory that epilepsy is “thrown” mystically, adding that this was a technique employed to discourage stealing. Nevertheless, these are mere beliefs that have no scientific foundation.

It is in this light that Dr. Elong Ngono, a neurologist who runs a private clinic, says; “With humans, when something cannot be explained, it is associated with mysticism, which is why there is much talk about “throwing” epilepsy in this area. Prof. Elie Mbonda, Paediatric Neurologist, President of the Cameroon League against Epilepsy, says; “epilepsy cannot be thrown on somebody, this is cheap talk”.

Experts seem to have divergent views on the causes of epilepsy as they believe that the causes vary from one zone to the other. An example is Ngie in the Northwest Region where epilepsy is suspected to be caused by the tape worm in pork. Epilepsy is a neurological disease that manifests itself in the form of a crisis. This crisis results from a discharge of cells in the brain which produces disorder and provokes visible reactions on the body.

An epileptic person suddenly falls, making wild movements of the hands and legs and foams in the mouth and goes unconscious momentarily for some minutes. Mbonda explains that epilepsy is an accident of cerebral origin, due to an infection in the brain, and can be linked to cerebral tumours or abscess in the brain, meningitis, filarial infection, dehydration and strong fevers in children.

To Ngono, epilepsy is not contagious, not hereditary, but, there are elements that indicate that many epileptic cases can be found in a family with no hereditary traits. Equally, there are diseases that are hereditary and whose clinical manifestation present epileptic crisis and symptoms such as meningitis, filarial infection, which, when treated, epilepsy disappears, Mbonda says.

Experts agree that there are several forms of epilepsy; general epilepsy, affecting the whole body, or partial epilepsy affecting only one part of the body. Parts of the body can be extended or localised, and that is why there are epileptic crises that can be observed and others not discerned as epileptic crisis.

The World Health Organisation, WHO, statistics indicate that 50 million people are touched in the world; 30 in Asia and 10 million in Africa. In Cameroon, epilepsy is present in the ten regions and represents 16 per cent of neurologic consultations in adults and two per cent in children.

However, there are endemic zones like Ntui with a high prevalence; 6000 epileptic persons (6.17 per cent of a population of 96,000 have epilepsy).  Andre Ambasinde, 3rd class chief, has four epileptic children, and Apollinaire Alima, another 3rd class chief, has 8 epileptic persons in his family, though he and wives are not epileptic.

The zone is situated along the Rivers Sanaga and Mbam and, therefore, the tendency of linking the high epilepsy prevalence in the zone to the environment, especially with the existence of black fly that causes river blindness, are high. Mbonda, however, warns that research needs to be conducted in the area before such declarations can be made.

Epilepsy is, therefore, a public health problem in Cameroon and the Minister of Public Health; Andre Mama Fouda, has instituted the celebration of the National Epilepsy Day to commence in 2012. The seriousness of the disease in the Mbam and Kim zones pushed the Ministry of Public Health in 2009 to sign a FCFA 65,595,000 three-year convention with a pharmaceutical firm, Sanofi Aventis, to ameliorate care for epileptic patients.

Under the convention, a pilot care programme was launched in Ntui on July 15 and an electro-encephalogram- epilepsy diagnosis machine was offered to the Ntui district hospital. This initiative comes in to complement the Catholic Church that provides treatment in their hospitals and assistance through the Association of Persons with Epilepsy.

Through this programme, medical personnel would be trained on how to handle epilepsy cases with a network extended right to the district doctors and contact persons in the ten regions. There are plans to involve the population in the sensitisation and management of epilepsy.

Epilepsy Is Cured

Epilepsy can sometimes be cured, but treatment is long. It takes 18 months to two years to cure simple epilepsy and 3-5 years to treat complex epilepsy, says Mbonda. Also, there are people who have it for life. Through the Government and Sanofi Aventis partnership, drugs, such as Valproate Sodium, 200mg and 500mg and Gardenal drugs, used for treatment, would supplied for free.

The families of Mirabel Betala and parents like Ambasinde and Alima may now find relief from the financial stress of buying the drugs. Despite this, in a crisis situation, the patient should be helped, placed on the side, do not shake the person, do not put anything in the mouth or give water or food, or stop the movements.

However, the focus is equally on prevention with Government insisting on proper prenatal care and delivery in a hospital or clinic, use of treated mosquito nets, proper dressing as protection from the black fly; as measures of preventing infections.

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