Cerebral Palsy – a community issue

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According to the National Council for Persons with Physical Disabilities in South Africa, cerebral palsy is the single largest cause of childhood disability.

Cerebral palsy can be defined as a neurological disorder that causes physical impairment. The physical impairment is the result of brain injury or abnormal brain development that happens before birth or immediately after birth.

Cerebral palsy has varying degrees of severity from mild to severe and can affect people’s body movement, muscle control, muscle coordination, muscle tone, reflex, posture and balance. The brain damage that causes this condition is permanent, which means the symptoms of cerebral palsy are permanent as well.

Parents and healthcare providers normally notice signs and symptoms of cerebral palsy during a child’s infancy or preschool stage.

Signs and symptoms can include abnormal posture, unsteady walking, and involuntary movements.

Muscle stiffness in the arms and legs can lead to limited joint movement. Sometimes children with cerebral palsy have swallowing difficulties or they find it difficult to focus with their eyes because of problems with their facial muscles. Children with cerebral palsy often have associated conditions such as learning impairments, visual impairments, speech impairments, and epilepsy.

Doctors and specialists conduct various tests to diagnose cerebral palsy; these can include brains scans which can reveal areas of damage and abnormal development in the brain. Treatment can include medication, therapies and surgical procedures. Doctors and other professionals work together as a multi-disciplinary team (MDT) to provide long-term support for children and adults with cerebral palsy.

This team can include specialists and therapists that treat specific conditions and disorders, for example a neurologist would treat brain and nervous system disorders, and an orthopaedic surgeon would treat bone and muscle disorders.

Community based support services are also important to provide continued support for children and adults with cerebral palsy, as well as for their families.

Unfortunately, people in many poor and rural communities do not have access to treatment and support services. This situation is caused by different factors, including lack of medicine and shortages of trained staff. Various organisations and associations are working together to address these challenges; but this is ultimately a community issue, and we should all strive to learn more about cerebral palsy so we can help persons with cerebral palsy “attain their maximum level of independence and integration into the community”.

This column provides a brief overview of cerebral palsy. For more information or for support, contact the Grahamstown-based Association for Persons with Physical Disabilities (APD) at 046 622 5359 or the National Association for Persons with Cerebral Palsy South Africa (NAPCP) at 011 609 3252.

  • Nathan Ferreira is a practitioner in inclusive education and a proponent of inclusive communities. disABILITIES is a monthly column. natjfer@yahoo.com
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