By Sharon Atieno

Adults with cerebral palsy are twice likely to develop cardiovascular disease and chronic respiratory diseases compared to adults without cerebral palsy, a new study reveals.

The study led by Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (RCSI) and Brunel University London, compared 1,700 adults with cerebral palsy and 5,000 adults without cerebral palsy to identify how many developed non-infectious diseases, such as asthma and stroke.

Findings of the study indicate that, adults with cerebral palsy were 2.6 times more likely to develop heart failure, 5.5 times more likely to have a stroke, 2.2 times more likely to develop asthma, 1.6 times more likely to develop hypertension and 2.3 times more likely to develop ischaemic heart disease.

Though there are no official statistics of the prevalence of cerebral palsy in Africa, it is estimated that there are around 10 cases per 1,000 births. With inadequate blood flow and oxygen to the brain during birth, brain damage and neonatal infections of the central nervous system being the leading cause of the condition in Africa.

In 2013, a working group of the African Child Neurology Association met in South Africa to try to build a picture of the condition across the continent to determine how well equipped different countries are to deal with it, and to identify the steps needed to improve the situation.

The delegates, from 22 African nations, found that a large proportion of children seem to be affected through postnatal insults, such as meningitis or cerebral malaria, yet no system of surveillance of at-risk babies was available in nine of these countries. Specialist services were mostly non-existent and in some countries, traditional healers were still the first point of contact for medical help.

In addition, South Africa and Egypt were the only countries to have any guidelines for managing cerebral palsy. Also, while all the countries represented reported physiotherapy to be available, about half could offer no occupational, speech, or language therapy, and many could provide no orthopaedic support.

Cerebral palsy was previously considered a paediatric condition, however, the majority of children with the condition now survive into adulthood and many adults with cerebral palsy have a near normal life expectancy.

“Until recently, we did not know much about the consequences of ageing with cerebral palsy. Our findings highlight the need for further research into the management of non-communicable diseases in this population,” said Jennifer Ryan, the study’s lead author and StAR Research Lecturer at RCSI and Senior Lecturer at Brunel University London.

“Our results clearly emphasise the importance of reframing how cerebral palsy is traditionally viewed; to recognise that it is not simply a condition of childhood. Health services should be designed and delivered with the aim of supporting people with cerebral palsy to be healthy and active throughout their lives,” Dr. Neil O’Connell, co-author, physiotherapist and senior lecturer at Brunel University London said.

The findings also disclosed that despite the increased rate of adults with cerebral palsy developing cardiovascular disease and chronic respiratory diseases, they were not at increased risk of developing diabetes or cancer.