Life & Culture

Caesar's electrical connection to rabbi

What do Julius Caesar, Danny Glover and Rabbi Lionel Blue have in common?


What do Julius Caesar, Hollywood actor Danny Glover and the late Rabbi Lionel Blue have in common? All three had epilepsy. For thousands of years, people having seizures were regarded with suspicion and were even thought to be possessed by evil forces. The social stigma attached to epilepsy meant those displaying symptoms would be treated as outcasts.

Thankfully, in the developed world at least, such beliefs no longer prevail but there is still a lack of knowledge about the condition, which affects more than 500,000 people in the UK and 60 million worldwide. Around 87 people are diagnosed with epilepsy every day.

Epilepsy is a neurological condition, which means it affects the brain and nervous system. It can cause different types of seizures. Electrical activity happens in our brains all the time, as the cells send messages to each other. A seizure occurs when there is a sudden burst of intense electrical activity in the brain, temporarily disrupting the way the brain normally works. Up to three per cent of people with epilepsy will be affected by flashing lights (called photosensitive epilepsy) but most do not have seizures triggered this way.

Dr Michael Gross is a consultant neurologist who runs a therapies centre in Harrow. He says the occurrence of epilepsy within the Jewish community is probably a little less than in the UK population as a whole but this may be due to more controlled lifestyles, rather than any genetic predisposition: there are fewer head injuries and less alcoholism or drug abuse.

“Epilepsy can affect any cultural group at any age,” he says. “The key is always getting the right diagnosis. A single fit isn’t epilepsy and many people with blackouts can be wrongly diagnosed.

“If you do have a blackout, then seek help. It should always be investigated by a specialist, with an MRI and other appropriate investigations.

“There are excellent treatments available for epilepsy — most people will get treated with medication with few side effects. Take the treatment as prescribed, get good-quality sleep and not too much alcohol.”

The most difficult group of people to manage with the condition are young women who may want to have children. This is because certain anti-epileptic drugs can cause foetal abnormalities. Nevertheless, with proper care, most women with epilepsy can have a normal pregnancy and a healthy baby.

This year, Purple Day — devoted to raising both awareness and funds — will be on March 26. National Epilepsy Week is May 14 to 20, with the two major UK charities, Epilepsy Action and Epilepsy Society, holding events around the country.

Epilepsy Society undertakes research to improve the diagnosis and treatment of epilepsy and works towards preventing it. In terms of new developments, genetic research is a key focus at the society, which this year celebrates its 125th anniversary.

Professor Ley Sander, medical director of Epilepsy Society, says: “Understanding how a person’s genetic make-up can affect their risk of developing epilepsy, the consequences and their response to treatment is central to the research we do. Currently our focus is looking at the extreme forms of epilepsy characterised by uncontrolled seizures and difficulties such as learning disabilities.

“In severe forms of epilepsy it can be easier to pinpoint the missing part of the genome which is causing the malfunctioning genes. In less severe epilepsies it can be far more difficult to pick out the genetic variants which are causing the seizures.”

For Jewish people with epilepsy, the charity Jewish Blind & Disabled is able to provide support, enabling them to live independent lives, with dignity and security.

Hazel Kaye, its chief executive, says: “Our tenants cover a large range of different disabilities, including epilepsy among many others, such as Huntington’s disease, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s, cerebral palsy and accident victims, as well, of course, as blindness and partial sight plus those disabilities that come with age. Indeed, some of these conditions include epilepsy among their symptoms.

“For those with epilepsy, we find the 24/7 support that Jewish Blind & Disabled offers is especially important and the main reason why they may choose a flat in one of our buildings.

“Our house managers live on-site, 24 hours a day, 365 days of the year and are available to help our tenants whenever they need them. We also have a tenancy support team, who provide an additional level of assistance including practical advice and emotional support in times of stress and anxiety.

“Tenants with epilepsy may also have other disabilities and therefore further benefit from living in one our buildings, which are designed with unparalleled attention to detail, to enable people to live independently. They include many special features and thoughtful touches, such as emergency pull cords throughout, wet floor shower rooms, wheelchair-accessible kitchens, colour-coded corridors, level access to the accessible gardens and much more.”

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