According to a new report by the World Health Organization (WHO), neurological disorders ranging from migraines to epilepsy and dementia, affect up to 1 billion people worldwide and that number is destined to rise as populations age.
The WHO report says the number of people suffering from Alzheimer's and other debilitating dementias, is currently 24.3 million people, but is expected to double every 20 years, with prevalence levels rising in developing countries.
The report "Neurological Disorders: Public Health Challenges," by the U.N. agency says that neurological care should become part of basic health care so that under detected disabilities are diagnosed and treated, especially in Africa.
The WHO says unless immediate action is taken globally, the neurological burden is expected to become an even more serious and unmanageable threat to public health.
The economic cost of such diseases in Europe alone reached some Euro 139 billion in 2004, and access to appropriate care is lacking in many parts of the world.
Neurological disorders include strokes, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's disease and brain injuries and they kill an estimated 6.8 million people each year, equating to 12 percent of global deaths.
The report says a mere 2 percent of dementia cases appear before the age of 65, but for every 5 years people live over the age of 65, the prevalence of dementia doubles.
Jose Manoel Bertolote, coordinator of WHO's unit for management of mental and brain disorders, says this was not the case 20 years ago, but is now also happening in developing countries, as life expectancy increases and more people reach the age when dementia starts.
Weak health care systems, a lack of trained personnel and essential drugs, along with traditional beliefs which stigmatize many illnesses, are exacerbating the treatment situation and are creating a divide between rich and poorer nations.
Dementia is as a rule a progressive disease leading to memory loss and other cognitive impairments; neurological disorders can also cause paralysis, speech problems and behavioural problems such as uncontrolled anger.
Although some 50 million people worldwide suffer from epilepsy, most of them in developing countries, an overwhelming majority of patients do not receive drugs to control the seizures.
WHO Director-General Margaret Chan says despite the fact that highly effective, low-cost treatments are available, as many as 9 out of 10 people suffering from epilepsy in Africa go untreated.
The report reveals that in some African countries, people believe that saliva can spread epilepsy or that the 'epileptic spirit' can be transferred to anyone who witnesses a seizure.
Such medieval misconceptions result in people retreating in fear from someone having a seizure, therefore leaving the afflicted person unprotected.
The report recommends a series of simple but effective actions, calling for greater commitment from decision makers, increased social and professional awareness, strategies that address stigma and discrimination, national capacity building and international collaboration.
The report says the use of helmets by motorcyclists and of seat-belts in motor vehicles can prevent traumatic brain injury, while immunization against meningitis and the early identification and treatment of malaria, are additional examples of concrete actions to reduce the burden of neurological disorders.
Statistics indicate that worldwide 50 million people suffer from epilepsy, 62 million from cerebrovascular disease, 326 million from migraine, and 24 million from Alzheimer disease and other dementias.
The report was developed by WHO in partnership with key non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in the field of neurological disorders and organizations caring for people affected by them.