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08 October 2004

Epilepsy and social stigma

Despite progress made in public education, misconceptions continue to influence societal attitudes and behaviour towards people with epilepsy.

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Does epilepsy still have a social stigma?
Witnessing a seizure can be frightening for someone unfamiliar or uninformed about the condition. Historical records show that fear and superstition surrounding epilepsy date back to ancient times, when people believed, for example, that seizures were caused by demonic possession. And still today, despite progress made in public education, misconceptions continue to influence societal attitudes and behaviour towards people with epilepsy.

Ignorance and social stigma: a world-wide problem
Misconceptions about epilepsy persist in many different countries. These may range from the idea that people with epilepsy are incapable of living normal productive lives, to beliefs that they are under the influence of supernatural powers. For example:

  • In some rural parts of India, attempts made to exorcise "evil spirits" from people with epilepsy include beating and starvation.
  • In the Netherlands in 1996, a person was whipped and put into isolation because her seizures were thought to result from magic.
  • In Uganda, people with epilepsy are thought to be contagious and are not permitted to eat from communal food containers.

Although continuing ignorance about epilepsy is a world-wide problem, it is particularly prevalent in the developing world, home to over four-fifths of the global population of people with the condition. In general in the developed world, legislation is aimed at protecting the rights of individuals with epilepsy, and advocacy organisations campaign to further protect these rights and raise public awareness. In contrast, beliefs that epilepsy is the product of witchcraft or demonic possession, or is contagious, are still commonplace in the developing world. The result is that people with epilepsy in this context face significantly greater barriers to leading a normal life.


What is epilepsy?
Who gets epilepsy?
Are epileptic people brain-damaged?

 
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