One Billion Suffer from Neurological Disorders: WHO

GENEVA, Switzerland ~ An estimated one billion people suffer from debilitating or life-threatening neurological disorders ranging from Alzheimer’s disease to headaches and the consequences of head injuries, the World Health Organisation (WHO) said this week.

The data, which is far higher than previous estimates, is contained in a WHO report, Neurological disorders: Public health challenges. The report also underlines the lack of adequate treatment in many parts of the world and the huge cost of care.

In 2005, some 40 million people suffered from epilepsy and 24 million more from Alzheimer’s or other disorders that produce dementia, which normally require extensive care or medical oversight as they progress, it adds.

The report predicts a substantial increase in the prevalence of Alzheimer’s and dementia within the coming decades, largely due to ageing populations.

WHO projections indicated that the total number of sufferers – overwhelmingly the elderly – would reach 44 million by 2030, a prevalence rate of 5.56 per 1,000 instead of 3.79 in 2005.

The report also encompasses infectious diseases that directly affect the brain and nervous system, such as meningitis, polio and encephalitis, as well as cerebrovascular disease including strokes, or the neurological impact of malnutrition or HIV/AIDS.

An estimated 6.8 million people die every year as a result of neurological disorders, about 11.7 percent of total deaths, according to the WHO. Most of them – 85 percent – are down to cerebrovascular disease.

“Health systems need to be strengthened to deliver better care for people with neurological disorders,” said WHO director general Margaret Chan.

“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,” she added in a statement.

The UN health agency underlined that the wide variety of neurological disorders affect people in all countries, regardless of their age, sex, income level or education.

The economic cost of neurological disease in Europe alone was estimated at about 139 million euros (US$183 million) in 2004, according to a study cited by the WHO.

Six years ago, the Geneva-based agency estimated that 450 million people were suffering at any one time from a broad range of mental, neurological or behavioral problems.

However, WHO spokeswoman Fadela Chaib said the new report had refined the estimates and scope of the global burden of neurological disorders.

The report calls for greater awareness, and greater commitment by decisions makers.

It says some simple action, including immunization against meningitis, and early identification and treatment of malaria, or more extensive use worldwide of preventive measures like helmets for all motorcyclists or seat belts in cars, could be effective in reducing the burden of neurological disorders.

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