WHO updates fact sheet on Epilepsy (10 February 2016)

The World Health Organization (WHO) has updated its fact sheet on epilepsy.

Background Information

Brain cells communicate with each other and other cells through electrical signals. Seizures occur when there is excessive electrical discharge from a group of brain cells.

One seizure does not signify epilepsy (up to 10% of people worldwide have one seizure during their lifetime). Epilepsy is defined as having 2 or more unprovoked seizures.

Epilepsy is a chronic disorder of the brain that is characterized by recurrent seizures- brief episodes of involuntary movement that may involve a part of the body (partial) or the entire body (generalized), and are sometimes accompanied by loss of consciousness and control of bowel or bladder function.

Key Messages

Epilepsy is one of the world’s oldest recognized conditions. However, fear, misunderstanding, discrimination and social stigma have surrounded epilepsy for centuries. This stigma continues in many countries today and can impact on the quality of life for people with the disorder and their families.

Approximately 50 million people currently live with epilepsy worldwide.

The estimated proportion of the general population with active epilepsy (i.e. continuing seizures or with the need for treatment) at a given time is between 4 and 10 per 1000 people.

Globally, an estimated 2.4 million people are diagnosed with epilepsy each year.

Close to 80% of people with epilepsy live in low- and middle-income countries.

The characteristics of seizures vary and depend on where in the brain the disturbance first starts, and how far it spreads.

Epilepsy is not contagious.

The most common type of epilepsy, which affects 6 out of 10 people with the disorder, is called idiopathic epilepsy and has no identifiable cause.

Epilepsy with a known cause is called secondary epilepsy, or symptomatic epilepsy. The causes of secondary (or symptomatic) epilepsy could be:

  • brain damage from prenatal or perinatal injuries (e.g. a loss of oxygen or trauma during birth, low birth weight),
  • congenital abnormalities or genetic conditions with associated brain malformations,
  • a severe head injury,
  • a stroke that restricts the amount of oxygen to the brain,
  • an infection of the brain such as meningitis, encephalitis, neurocysticercosis,
  • certain genetic syndromes,
  • a brain tumour.

Up to 70% of children and adults with epilepsy can be successfully treated (i.e. their seizures completely controlled) with anti¬epileptic drugs (AEDs).

After 2 to 5 years of successful treatment and being seizure-free, drugs can be withdrawn in about 70% of children and 60% of adults without subsequent relapse.

In low- and middle-income countries, about three fourths of people with epilepsy may not receive the treatment they need. This is called the “treatment gap”.

It is possible to diagnose and treat most people with epilepsy at the primary health- care level without the use of sophisticated equipment.

People with epilepsy can experience reduced access to health and life insurance, a withholding of the opportunity to obtain a driving license, and barriers to enter particular occupations, among other limitations:

  • In both China and India, epilepsy is commonly viewed as a reason for prohibiting or annulling marriages.

Legislation based on internationally accepted human rights standards can prevent discrimination and rights violations, improve access to health-care services, and raise the quality of life for people with epilepsy.

Useful Links

Link to the updated fact sheet:


Link to WHO video: Epilepsy, Treat it, Defeat it:

Link to Epilepsy Manual for Medical and Clinical Officers in Africa (2002):


Link to WHOs Mental Health Action Plan 2013-2020 (multiple languages):


Link to ‘Global Campaign against Epilepsy: out of the shadows’ page:


Link to WHO page ‘Epilepsy and Seizures’:


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