Back to search

River Epilepsy—A Preventable Form of Epilepsy


Background: High onchocerciasis transmission predisposes endemic communities to a high epilepsy burden. The 4.4% epilepsy prevalence documented in 2018 in Maridi, South Sudan, prompted the strengthening of onchocerciasis elimination measures. Community-directed treatment with ivermectin was implemented annually in 2017, 2018, and 2019, interrupted in 2020, and re-implemented biannually in 2021. We aimed to assess the effect of these interventions, along with slash and clear vector control on the incidence of epilepsy, including nodding syndrome.

Methods: In this longitudinal, prospective, population-based study, we did a two-stage house-to-house epilepsy survey before (May 10-30, 2018) and after (March 9-19, 2022) the strengthening of onchocerciasis elimination interventions in South Sudan. Strengthening also included the implementation of a community-based slash and clear vector control method that we initiated in 2019 at the Maridi dam (the main blackfly breeding site). Eight sites were surveyed near the Maridi dam and inclusion required residence in one of these sites. All household residents were first screened by community workers, followed by confirmation of the epilepsy diagnosis by trained clinicians. The primary outcome was epilepsy incidence, including nodding syndrome, which was assessed via self-reported new-onset epilepsy in the previous 4 years of each survey, confirmed by clinician assessment.

Findings: The preintervention survey included 17 652 people of whom 736 had epilepsy (315 female and 421 male), and the post-intervention survey included 14 402 people of whom 586 had epilepsy (275 female and 311 male). When biannual community-directed treatment with ivermectin was initiated in 2021, the intervention’s coverage rose by 15.7% (95% CI 14.6-16.8); although only 56.6% of the population took ivermectin in 2021. Between 2018 and 2022, epilepsy incidence decreased from 348.8 (307.2-395.8) to 41.7 (22.6-75.0) per 100 000 person-years. Similarly, the incidence of nodding syndrome decreased from 154.7 (127.6-187.3) to 10.4 (2.7-33.2) per 100 000 person-years. The identified risk factors for epilepsy were: living closer to the Maridi dam, being aged between 6 and 40 years, not taking ivermectin, and being male.

Interpretation: In onchocerciasis-endemic areas with high epilepsy prevalence, strengthening onchocerciasis elimination interventions can decrease the incidence of epilepsy, including nodding syndrome. Additional efforts are needed to increase community-directed treatment with ivermectin coverage and sustain blackfly control in Maridi. 

More information

Journal Article
Widdess-Walsh P