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By Toba Ajayi. Freelance Health Writer ad DLHA volunteer, with medical review and editorial support from the DLHA Team
Caregiver and child with cerebral palsy. Image credit: CoRSU
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Cerebral palsy (CP) is a group of disorders that affect a person’s ability to move and maintain balance and posture.
It is the most common movement disability in childhood. CP greatly affects a person's behavior and brain functions, making it challenging to perform everyday tasks.
Of every 1,000 births, 2 to 3 children are affected by cerebral palsy, making it the most prevalent cause of childhood disability worldwide, including in Africa. While efforts are being made to enlighten people about this condition and its management, most countries in sub-Saharan Africa still need more awareness and resources.
This article will cover everything you need to know about cerebral palsy, including the causes, prevention, risk factors, and management from an African standpoint. You’ll also discover how you can help to empower individuals with cerebral palsy in your community.
The word cerebral means “brain,” and palsy means “weakness” or “paralysis.” Thus, CP is a brain disorder affecting a child’s ability to move, maintain balance, and coordinate. Sometimes, they also have an eye-muscle imbalance, in which the eyes cannot focus on the same object.
Usually, noticeable evidence appear in children within their first two years of development. Some infants are diagnosed with cerebral palsy immediately after birth, while others are diagnosed months later. It is a non-progressive disorder, i.e. it doesn’t get worse over time.
CP is generally classified based on its symptoms. Some of these include:
Cerebral palsy can be described/classified into different types. This description/ classification depends on the affected child’s movement pattern or the number of hands and legs affected.
Depending on the part of the brain affected, some or both legs and hands might be involved. Here’s how CP is classified based on the affected limbs:
Cerebral palsy can also be classified into three major types, depending on the type of movement disorder expressed.
Cerebral palsy results from different types of insults or damage to the brain that can occur before, during, or shortly after childbirth. The damage to the brain affects the posture, movement, and coordination of muscles. It can be caused by several factors, such as:
The development of the brain begins after conception and does not fully develop until the mid-twenties. Cerebral Palsy due to poor brain development occurs when the brain is underdeveloped, undeveloped, or abnormally developed. It can happen at any point during brain development, but the first 20 weeks of fetal growth and development are crucial.
Although CP caused by poor brain development cannot be inherited, research proves it can be linked to specific genetic factors.
This is damage to the brain caused by a lack of oxygen for a prolonged period. The brain cannot do without adequate oxygen, even in a fetus. So, when a developing child goes for an extended period without oxygen (usually under 4 minutes), the brain cells may die, causing irreparable damage to the brain.
Some factors that can cause HIE are low blood pressure in the mother during pregnancy, poor circulation in the fetus, heart and lung issues, placenta abruption (separation of the placenta), and knotting of the umbilical cord. Negligence during delivery can also cause the baby to go for a long period without oxygen, resulting in cerebral palsy or death.
Brain bleed is a critical event and can cause severe permanent damage to a baby’s brain due to poor oxygen supply to the brain cells.
Excessive bleeding can also lead to blood collection in the brain, causing inflammation. This swelling can cause severe brain pressure if it is not relieved, thus, causing cerebral palsy.
Malaria infection of the brain (Cerebral malaria), Kernicterus (the accumulation of yellow pigments in some brain areas due to excessive breakdown of red blood cells), and low birth weights have also been identified as high risk factors for cerebral palsy in African children.
Currently, there’s no cure for CP, just like many other brain and nerve disorders. So, most affected children require lifelong care. Specialist doctors and other health professionals such as neurologists, pediatricians, physical and behavioral therapists are in the best position to provide treatment.
While there is no known cure for cerebral palsy, specific treatment options exist that can help reduce its effect. Depending on the type of CP and the degree of damage done, your care provider may advise medications, physical therapy, or surgery.
Certain medications have been proven to relax the muscles and reduce stiffness in the arm or leg of CP patients. Thus, your care provider may recommend them to treat some symptoms.
Anti-seizure medications can help reduce seizures in affected children. These medications have side effects such as feeling sleepy, skin rash, irritability, and stomach upset.
Several therapies are used in treating CP symptoms and have proven effective. Some of these are physical therapy, occupational therapy, and speech therapy.
Usually, the last resort, surgery can be done to help reduce muscle stiffness and correct bone abnormality. Two major types of surgery can be done, which are:
Currently, there is no specific way of preventing cerebral palsy. Research is ongoing to determine more effective ways to prevent the incidence of cerebral palsy. However, you can take measures before, during, and after pregnancy to reduce the risk factors for your unborn child.
Certain lifestyle choices before pregnancy can help reduce your child's risk of cerebral palsy. Here are some of the boxes to check if you might be having a baby soon:
You need to pay extra attention to your body and well-being during pregnancy. Always be ready to make safe lifestyle choices for you and your baby. Some of the things you can do to reduce the risk factors of cerebral palsy include:
Your baby’s brain is still developing even after birth. So, you want to ensure you provide the utmost care during this period, especially when they’re under 5 years old. Here’s what you can do to care for them during this vulnerable period:
Sub-Saharan African countries present unique challenges and opportunities to directly impact the lives of individuals with cerebral palsy within specific communities. You can provide meaningful support and help create a more inclusive environment by following these practical strategies:
By engaging in the activities of support groups for children with cerebral palsy in Africa, you have the incredible opportunity to make a significant impact. These groups are a haven for sharing unique experiences, insights, and valuable resources, creating a closely-knit community to help improve the lives of people living with CP.
You can help improve access to therapies, education, and emotional support by joining or setting up a local support group. Promoting awareness and reducing stigma will empower families and caregivers to advocate for these children's well-being within different communities of sub-Saharan Africa.
You can engage with local schools and institutions to promote inclusive practices for people with cerebral palsy. Advocate for accessible infrastructure to ensure an inclusive learning environment. As a volunteer, you can also encourage establishing special education programs or resource rooms where students with cerebral palsy can receive tailored support.
Volunteer your time and skills to support individuals with cerebral palsy. You can contact local organizations or community centers that work with individuals with disabilities and offer your assistance. This service could involve helping with therapy sessions, organizing recreational activities, or providing transportation to medical appointments.
One of the significant problems in managing a child with cerebral palsy in most sub-Saharan African countries is the lack of awareness about this condition. As someone with a child with CP or interested in helping, you can help raise awareness about the condition within your neighborhood.
One way to help raise awareness is to support the effort made by some organizations. You can also help organize community workshops to educate others about the condition, its challenges, and the abilities of individuals with cerebral palsy to lead independent and healthy lives.
Access to healthcare services can be challenging for people with cerebral palsy, especially in rural areas. Still, you can help individuals with cerebral palsy navigate healthcare systems by providing information about local clinics, hospitals, and specialists who can offer appropriate care.
Support social inclusion by organizing and participating in events and activities to encourage interaction among individuals with cerebral palsy and the broader community. These arrangements could be sports events, art workshops, or cultural celebrations that create opportunities for social connections and friendships.
Remember, even small acts of kindness and support can significantly impact the lives of individuals with cerebral palsy and their family members. You can create a more supportive and inclusive environment by raising awareness, providing practical assistance, and promoting social engagement within your neighborhood.
Having a child with cerebral palsy comes with its many challenges, but people with cerebral palsy can live fulfilling lives with determination, support, and access to the right resources. Several medical advancements and assistive technologies make it easier for them to move, communicate and sometimes, live independently.
By staying positive and persevering, parents and caregivers can support individuals with cerebral palsy to overcome obstacles, reach their goals, and make meaningful contributions to their respective communities.
Cerebral palsy affects 2 to 3 out of every 1,000 children, making it the most common cause of childhood disability worldwide. It is a non-progressive brain disorder that affects movement and coordination. There is no known cure, so treatment is targeted at reducing its symptoms. Prevention is challenging, but specific measures before and during pregnancy can help reduce the risk.
Efforts to raise awareness and provide resources are crucial, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, where knowledge about the condition is limited. By forming or joining support groups, promoting inclusion, volunteering, raising awareness, facilitating healthcare access, and encouraging social engagement, you can help to improve the lives of individuals with cerebral palsy significantly.
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4. Durkin MS., Benedict RE., Christensen D., et al., (2016). Prevalence of cerebral palsy among 8-year-old children in 2010 and preliminary evidence of trends in its relationship to low birthweight. Pediatric and Perinatal Epidemiology. 30(5):496-510. doi: 10.1111/ppe.12299.
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Published: August 28, 2023
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