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Childhood Epilepsy In UK Has Fallen Sharply

The past decade in the UK has seen a sharp fall in the number of children diagnosed with epilepsy, reflecting a trend seen in other countries, according to a study published recently in the Archives of Diseases in Childhood.

Senior author Ruth Gilbert, a professor in the MRC Centre of Epidemiology for Child Health, Institute of Child Health, at University College London, says in a BBC report of the study:

"We're getting better at diagnosing and deciding who should be treated and then there is also probably an effect of factors like fewer cases of meningitis."

Epilepsy is a tendency to have seizures (sometimes called fits) where sudden bursts of excess electrical activity in the brain temporarily disrupt the normal travel of messages between brain cells.

For their study, Gilbert and colleagues examined records from the Health Improvement Network, which furnishes data on a representative sample of about 5% the UK population.

The data they used in their analysis came from records of more than 344,000 children aged 0 to 14 years who had variously been followed from 1994 to 2008.

They found that overall, the number of children diagnosed with epilepsy who were born between 2003 and 2005, was 33% lower than those who were born between 1994 and 1996.

They also found that the annual rate of epilepsy fell by 4% a year between 2001 and 2008, after adjusting for age, gender and deprivation.

When they used a more sensitive indicator for epilepsy, the number of diagnoses fell by 47% and the annual rate fell by 9% per year, for the same periods.

The researchers conclude:

"The decline since the mid-1990s in epilepsy recorded in primary care may be due to more specific diagnosis, cessation of treatment for some forms of epilepsy, reduced exposure to risk factors or all of these factors."

They suggest vaccination against meningitis and reductions in cases of traumatic brain injury in children, both of which are known risk factors for childhood epilepsy, may also partially explain the fall in the figures.

Gilbert says a misdiagnosis of epilepsy can blight a child for life.

But this is less likely to happen nowadays, because the approach is more rigorous, partly as a result of guidelines from the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE).

Nevertheless, Simon Wigglesworth, deputy chief executive at Epilepsy Action, says "epilepsy remains one of the most prevalent neurological conditions in children in the UK."

He says while the study's results may be explained by falling rates of misdiagnoses in children, which they know to be high, they are not convinced it is the whole picture. Doctors tell them they are not seeing falling numbers of children presenting with epilepsy at their surgeries.

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