Newborns twitching or rolling up their eyes or making frequent jerky body movements could mean they are having epileptic attacks and need immediate medical attention.
Epilepsy may be the most common neurological disorder in the country. According to an ICMR-supported study published in the June issue of the Indian Journal of Neurology, one in 100 suffers from it, though not many are aware of its early warning signs.
While convulsions are an obvious sign of epilepsy, doctors specially warn parents to not to ignore subtle signs such as unexplained blank episodes or those of confusion and fainting and constant shaking of hands and legs as they could indicate the onset of epilepsy. One needs to be especially careful if there is a history of seizures or epilepsy in the family, which can be picked up as early as within 28 days of a child being born.
"In newborns, it is not really a disease as the symptoms are usually minor and result in not-so-serious issues, such as low sugar or calcium levels. However, in teenagers and adults, the cause of attacks could be serious, such as a brain infection, bleeding, legion or cyst that would need proper treatment in the form of medicines," said Dr Nitin Verma, senior consultant, department of paediatrics, Max Super Specialty Hospital, Saket.
Anvesha Mittal (name changed on request), 42, thought her 15-year-old son was having nightmares when he would shiver in his sleep.
"I thought he was having a bad dream. Gradually, the episodes increased and he started shivering during his afternoon naps as well. That's when we took him to a doctor," she said.
Her son was diagnosed with epilepsy after an MRI scan showed a small legion on the left side of the brain. "I have kept his teachers in the loop. They are careful with him now," she added.
The serious form of epilepsy mostly affects people when they are most productive, that is when they are aged between 14 and 45 years. Depending on the condition, treatment can last up to three years to a lifetime.
"A person with epilepsy needs to take medicines for long. Though the medicines are not very expensive, they still can burn holes in the pockets of many. A large number never receive treatment, and 75% of those who do, leave it mid-way," said Dr Manjari Tripathi, additional professor, department of neurology, All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), who was part of the ICMR-supported study.
Almost four-fifth of those affected do not receive treatment despite it being fairly inexpensive and effective in 95% of the cases.
Surgery can also treat epilepsy. But not every patient can be operated because of high chances of irreversible brain damage.
Looking at the large numbers, the Government of India is considering an epilepsy control programme to spread awareness about the disease and distribute free medicines.
"The national programme will help by reaching out to people at the periphery, like it happened with the national mental health programme," said Dr P Sathish Chandra, director and vice-chancellor, National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences, Bangalore.
It is estimated that there are more than 10 million people with epilepsy in our country. "One million new cases get added to the figure every year," said Dr Satish Jain, who runs the Indian Epilepsy Centre in Delhi.
"It is an eminently treatable disorder and it is high-time the government takes it up on a priority basis to benefit the poor," said Dr Chandra.