ABU DHABI // Almost one in six people believe that epileptics should be isolated from the rest of society, with some of them believing the condition was brought on by evil spirits, a survey has found.
The study, which interviewed 400 Emiratis and expatriates, also found that more than 80 per cent of people would not allow their son or daughter to marry someone with epilepsy.
The study’s author, Dr Abduelmula Abduelkarem, a clinical pharmacy associate professor at the University of Sharjah, said: “People with epilepsy in our community face stigma and discrimination given the inadequate knowledge and negative attitudes held by the public.
“We need a mentality change and an educational programme from early stages. Some patients with epilepsy believed that the social attitude and the stigma and discrimination against epilepsy are more devastating than the disease itself.”
As well as 14 per cent believing epileptics should be isolated and 4 per cent believing the illness was caused by spirits, the survey also found that epileptics faced discrimination when it came to marriage.
When respondents were asked if they would allow their child to marry someone with the disease, 82.5 per cent said they would not.
Dr Abduelkarem believed that although the survey was conducted in Sharjah, the views expressed were representative of the whole country.
He believed the Ministry of Health and Ministry of Education should develop educational programmes to raise awareness among children and their families about epilepsy.
“Primary school health education might hold the key to raising awareness among children and their families and teachers on the prevention of such perception and attitudes,” he said.
Dr Taoufik Al Saadi, president of the Emirati League Against Epilepsy, agreed that epileptics faced discrimination.
“People still have problems accepting those who have epilepsy in marriage and employment. What struck me is that people still believe epilepsy is caused by supernatural power or an evil spirit,” said Dr Al Saadi.
“There is a clear need in society to understand more about epilepsy.
“The public needs to know what epilepsy means, to understand treatment options and to understand that people who have epilepsy can live normal lives.”
Dr Al Saadi believed a consistent campaign would help to educate people.
Mona, a Jordanian living in Abu Dhabi, said she was reluctant to tell people she was an epileptic after the reaction she received in her home country.
“In Jordan, people were ignorant and they thought epilepsy could be transferred or infect a child,” said the 35-year-old who works in research.
“They don’t know what to do when someone has a seizure. When I moved here two years ago, I hesitated to tell people, especially if I was looking for a job.”
Even now she has only told a few friends about her condition.
“Friends I have confided in feel sorry for me, but don’t ask me about the problem,” she said.
She agreed that there should be better education.
“It’s not something to be scared of. If there are more channels for people to learn about epilepsy, people will be less scared of it,” she said.
“When it comes to marriage, it depends on the spouse and the family. However, finding someone who will accept the condition is an important factor,” she said.
About 50 million people worldwide have epilepsy, making it one of the most common neurological diseases in the world.
Up to 70 per cent of patients can control their seizures with medication.