A SOUTHAMPTON doctor is leading a global mission to eradicate the use of ‘witchcraft’ to treat epileptics in one of the world’s poorest countries and give them a chance of leading a normal life.

Dr Martin Prevett, a consultant neurologist at Southampton General Hospital, is bringing modern medicines to those at risk of suffering permanent injury from traditional healers in Ethiopia who blame seizures on evil spirits.

The unique treatment programme aims to give thousands of patients living in isolated rural communities access to much-needed medicines and educate them about the condition in a bid to prevent them from seeking help from those practising witchcraft.

Dr Prevett said: “Ethiopia has a population of about 80 million, 85 per cent of whom live in rural communities with limited access to medical care and epilepsy is at least as common there as it is in the UK, where it affects around 600,000 people, yet the vast majority of sufferers in Ethiopia do not have access to treatment.

“The rural poor, who are isolated and have limited access to healthcare, frequently attribute epilepsy to supernatural causes or evil spirits and most will first seek help from traditional healers, which leaves them vulnerable to permanent injury caused by untreated and ongoing seizures.

“To exacerbate the situation, many people are afraid they will ‘catch’ epilepsy if they touch somebody with the condition, so sufferers are also stigmatised and often excluded from their communities.”

Although incurable, the condition, which is caused by abnormal brain activity that forces the body to fit, can be effectively managed following diagnosis with medical treatment.

The project, known as the Southampton-Ethiopia chronic disease partnership, has so far given more than 8,000 patients access to medication in rural health centres around the cities of Jimma and Gondar.

An incredible 80 per cent of those attending the clinics have seen major reductions in the amount of seizures they suffer and half of those are now seizure-free.

In addition, members of the epilepsy team at University Hospital Southampton NHS Foundation Trust, have developed training materials and support an annual training programme for health centre staff.

Due to its success, Dr Prevett has now expanded the project with help from Professor David Phillips, an endocrinologist, to look at providing similar care for diabetics and those suffering from cardiovascular problems.

He added: “The successful treatment we’ve been able to provide through our partnership has transformed the lives of many people who are now accepted in their communities and are able to lead normal lives.

“There is still much to be done, but it is hoped that the epilepsy clinics that have been established around Jimma and Gondar with the help of Southampton’s epilepsy team will serve as a model for the rest of Ethiopia and other low income countries.”