Neurological disorders affect millions globally, WHO reports [Archives:2007/1030/Health]

March 5 2007

Neurological disorders ranging from epilepsy to Alzheimer's, strokes to headaches, as well as brain injuries, neuroinfections, Multiple Sclerosis and Parkinson's disease, affect up to one billion people worldwide, says a new report from the World Health Organization.

According to the report published last week under the title, “Neurological disorders: Public health challenges,” one billion people are affected worldwide. For example, 50 million people have epilepsy; 62 million are affected by cerebrovascular disease; 326 million suffer migraines and 24 million are affected by Alzheimer's and other types of dementia globally. Neurological disorders affect those in all countries, irrespective of age, gender, education or income.

The WHO report distinguishes neurological disorders from mental disorders, the first of which are diseases of the central and peripheral nervous system; in other words, the brain, spinal cord, cranial nerves, peripheral nerves, nerve roots, autonomic nervous system, neuromuscular junction and muscles.

Such disorders include epilepsy, Alzheimer's and other types of dementia, cerebrovascular diseases including strokes, migraines and other headache disorders, Multiple Sclerosis, Parkinson's disease, neuroinfections, brain tumors, traumatic nervous system disorders such as brain trauma and neurological disorders resulting from malnutrition.

On the other hand, mental disorders are “psychiatric illnesses” or diseases appearing primarily as abnormalities of thought, feeling or behavior and producing either distress or impaired function.

A study published in the June 2005 European Journal of Neurology revealed that an estimated 6.8 million people die annually because of neurological disorders. In Europe, the economic cost of neurological diseases was estimated at approximately $139 billion in 2004.

Access to appropriate care is difficult for many of those with neurological disorders, as well as their families and caregivers. For this reason, WHO advocates integrating neurological care into primary health care because for many, primary health care is the only access to medical care that they have. In these settings, doctors can use low-technology interventions. Community-based rehabilitation is also an option.

“Despite the fact that highly effective, low-cost treatments are available, as many as nine out of 10 people suffering epilepsy in Africa go untreated. Health systems must be strengthened to deliver better care for those with neurological disorders,” says WHO Director-General, Dr. Margaret Chan.

The reasons for non-availability of treatment include inadequate health delivery systems, lack of trained personnel, absence of essential drugs and prevalence of traditional beliefs and practices. “In order to reduce the impact of neurological disorders, innovative approaches involving strong partnerships must be put in place,” says professor Johan Aarli, president of the World Federation of Neurology and a member of the group that wrote the report.

As the global population ages, the impact of neurological disorders will be felt both in developed and developing countries. Rita Levi-Montalcini, winner of the Nobel Prize in Medicine, commented, “The burden of neurological disorders is reaching a significant proportion in countries with a growing percentage of the population over 65 years.”

The WHO report recommends a series of simple but effective actions, arguing for greater commitment by decision makers, increased social and professional awareness, strategies that address stigma and discrimination, national capacity building and international collaboration.

Use of helmets by motorcyclists and seatbelts in motor vehicles can prevent traumatic brain injury. Immunization against meningitis as well as early identification and treatment of malaria are additional examples of concrete actions to reduce the burden of neurological disorders.

WHO developed the new report in partnership with key nongovernmental organizations in the field of neurological disorders, as well as organizations caring for those affected by these conditions. It further benefited from contributions by experts and reviewers from all regions of the world.