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October 2021

Soc Sci Med. 1997 Sep; 45(5): 783-95.

Psychosocial study of epilepsy in Africa.

Jilek-Aall L, Jilek M, Kaaya J, Mkombachepa L, Hillary K.

Dept. of Psychiatry, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada.

As documented by many authors, the social position of epileptics in many small scale societies of Africa is marginal at best, and is often characterized by rejection, discrimination, even ostracism. Such negative and noxious attitudes toward persons suffering from epilepsy are rooted in traditional beliefs about causes and nature of convulsive disorders and these have parallels in European history. This article focuses on the psychosociocultural aspects and indigenous concepts of epilepsy, on popular attitudes towards, and social status of, sufferers from epilepsy in a Tanzanian tribal population. The authors present a comparative analysis of focus group discussions conducted with epileptics and with matched controls in two isolated communities. In one community (Mahenge) a clinic for epilepsy has been operating for over 36 years, with a public education component during the last four years, whereas in the other community (Ruaha) epileptics have only been sporadically treated in a small mission dispensary and people have had little opportunity to learn about the nature and modern treatment of convulsive disorders. The responses obtained in focus group discussions reflect the significant change in notions about the illness, in the attitude toward and in the social status of epileptics in Mahenge, while the people of Ruaha still regard epilepsy as a typical "African" affliction fraught with supernatural danger and not effectively treatable by modern medicine.

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