Tuesday, February 27, 2007
Tue 27 Feb 2007 11:21 AM ET
By Stephanie Nebehay
GENEVA, Feb 27 (Reuters) - Neurological disorders ranging from migraines to epilepsy and dementia affect up to 1 billion people worldwide and the toll will rise as populations age, the World Health Organisation (WHO) said on Tuesday.
The number of people suffering from Alzheimer's and other debilitating dementias, currently 24.3 million people, is expected to double every 20 years, with prevalence levels rising in developing countries, it said.
In a report entitled "Neurological Disorders: Public Health Challenges", the U.N. agency said that neurological care should become part of basic health care so that underdetected disabilities were diagnosed and treated, especially in Africa.
"Unless immediate action is taken globally, the neurological burden is expected to become an even more serious and unmanageable threat to public health," the WHO said.
Neurological disorders -- which also include strokes, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's disease and brain injuries -- kill an estimated 6.8 million people each year, accounting for 12 percent of global deaths, it said.
"The burden of neurological disorders is reaching a significant proportion in countries with a growing percentage of the population over 65-years-old," Nobel medicine laureate Rita Levi-Montalcini said in a foreword to the report.
DOUBLING OF DEMENTIA RATES
Only 2 percent of dementia cases start before the age of 65, but for every 5 years people live over the age of 65, the prevalence of dementia roughly doubles, the report said.
"In developing countries, as life expectancy increases, people reach the age of dementia as well, which was not the case 20 years ago," Jose Manoel Bertolote, coordinator of WHO's unit for management of mental and brain disorders, told Reuters.
Yet weak health care systems, lack of trained personnel and essential drugs, and traditional beliefs which stigmatise many illnesses are deepening the treatment divide between rich and poorer nations, the WHO said.
Dementia, usually a progressive disease, leads to memory loss and other cognitive impairments. Neurological disorders can also cause paralysis, behavioural problems such as uncontrolled anger, or speech problems.
Some 50 million people worldwide suffer from epilepsy, most of them in developing countries, but an overwhelming majority of patients do not receive drugs to halt the seizures, it said.
"Despite the fact that highly effective, low-cost treatments are available, as many as nine out of 10 people suffering from epilepsy in Africa go untreated," said WHO Director-General Margaret Chan.
The report added: "In some African countries, people believe that saliva can spread epilepsy or that the 'epileptic spirit' can be transferred to anyone who witnesses a seizure. These misconceptions cause people to retreat in fear from someone having a seizure, leaving that person unprotected."
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