Revelations in court that triple murder accused Henri van Breda has Juvenile Myoclonic epilepsy have created the impression that people diagnosed with epilepsy are dangerous, says the writer. Picture: Henk Kruger/ANA
Cape Town - Recent news coverage of the Van Breda axe murder trial reported that triple-murder accused Henri van Breda was diagnosed with Juvenile Myoclonic epilepsy. This created the impression that persons diagnosed with epilepsy are dangerous and can do things without being aware of this.

Some people now believe many of the myths and misconceptions about this neurological condition to be true. Epilepsy does not make a person any more dangerous than his/her peers and should never be feared because of their condition.

Here are the facts about epilepsy:

* Epilepsy is a neurological condition characterised by unusual electrical activity in the brain causing unprovoked seizures. It is not a psychological disorder, disease or illness and it is not contagious.

* Epilepsy is the most common neurological condition and affects one in every 100 people in South Africa (i.e. approximately half a million South Africans). If every person with epilepsy has four immediate family members, at least another 2 million South Africans are affected by the condition. There are approximately 50 million people with epilepsy worldwide.

* While one in 20 people will have a seizure at some time in their lives this does not mean that they have epilepsy (which requires a specific diagnosis).

* 75% of people with epilepsy will experience their first seizure before the age of 20 and up to 80% of people with epilepsy will be able to control their seizures with medication.

* The overall risk of a child having unprovoked seizures is between 1 and 2% of the general population. However, this risk increases to approximately 6% if a parent has epilepsy.

* Epilepsy does not make people dangerous.

* There are several types of epilepsy generally divided into two groups:

(1) Generalised seizures occur when the excessive electrical activity encompasses the entire brain during which the person may lose consciousness.

(2) Partial seizures occur when the excessive electrical activity is limited to one are in the brain.

* In approximately 66% of cases the underlying cause of epilepsy is unknown (idiopathic epilepsy). In the remaining cases the underlying cause(s) can be identified (symptomatic epilepsy) and include head injury (which may occur at any age), birth injury (e.g. lack of oxygen during the birth process), alcohol and drug abuse, degeneration (ageing) and metabolic or biochemical disturbances or imbalance.

* Epilepsy can happen to anybody at any time.

* People with epilepsy do not always have convulsions. There are different forms of epilepsy and different types of seizures.

* People with epilepsy are not cursed or bewitched, nor is epilepsy a punishment of the person or his/her family.

* People with epilepsy can live full lives and achieve their true potential. Some well-known people with epilepsy includes Jonty Rhodes, Prince, Danny Glover, Vincent van Gogh, Alexander the Great, Napoleon Bonaparte, Gerry Rantseli-Elsdon, L’il Wayne, St Paul and Alfred Nobel.

* For most people with epilepsy the biggest problem they have to face is the attitude of other people. What is needed most is understanding and acceptance.

Juvenile Myoclonic Epilepsy (JME)

Following news of Van Breda’s diagnosis with JME Epilepsy South Africa received several enquiries regarding this condition. Here is what you need to know:

* JME accounts for between 5 and 10% of all epilepsy.

* 60% of people with JME are women.

* There is no serious underlying cause and no associated significant intellectual difficulties.

* JME is a lifelong condition for 95% of people.

* Only certain anti-epileptic drugs (AEDs) are effective in treating JME, but proper treatment is required, including attention to lifestyle choices.

* JME usually starts in early adolescence with 2 or 3 separate seizure types.

* All persons with JME have myoclonus (small jerks mainly of the arms, especially in the early mornings).

* People with JME come to medical attention after one or two generalised tonic-clonic seizures (without warning and usually in the early mornings).

* About 25% of people have absence seizures (frequent staring events lasting between 10 and 20 seconds without loss of consciousness).

* An EEG confirms the diagnosis showing a fairly characteristic pattern between seizures of fast spike and wave which is brought on by photic stimulation (strobe light) in about 25% of people.

* The exact cause of JME is still hotly contested. There is wide consensus that JME is inherited. However, the inheritance pattern is complicated and to date it is unclear if the gene defect involves a single or multiple genes.

* An accurate diagnosis is critical to ensure appropriate treatment.

* There may be long periods between seizures.

* Two factors are famous as seizure triggers in JME: (a) sleep deprivation and (b) excessive alcohol consumption.

What can you do when someone has a seizure?

Medical help is usually not necessary, but should be sought if (a) repetitive seizure occur without the person regaining consciousness in between seizures, (b) the seizure shows no sign of stopping after a few minutes, (c) there is physical injury during the seizure.


* Stay as calm as possible.

* Time how long the seizure lasts.

* If possible, cushion the person’s head to avoid injury.

* Loosen any tight clothing and remove his/her glasses if possible.

* Turn the person on his/her side in the first aid recovery position to avoid choking and assist breathing.

* Stay with and reassure him/her until the person is fully recovered and conscious.

* Call an ambulance if the seizure continues for more than 6 minutes.


* Do not move or restrain the person unless he/she is in immediate danger.

* Never put anything in the person’s mouth or burn anything in front of his/her nose. This is a popular myth and will only lead to injury.

* Never give him/her anything to eat or drink or give any medication.

* Epilepsy South Africa is the only national organisation in South Africa providing services to persons with and affected by epilepsy. The organisation is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. For more information contact Epilepsy South Africa on 0860EPILEPSY or email [email protected]