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22 July: 2017 World Brain Day devoted to stroke

Stroke the world’s second most common cause of death – Condition affects 16 million people each year – Benefits of treatment revolution felt differently worldwide – Prevention could add 100 million healthy life years

London, 19.07.2017

 

To mark World Brain Day, held annually on 22 July, the World Federation of Neurology is working, together with the World Stroke Organisation, to increase awareness of stroke this year. Despite revolutionary advances in therapy, stroke is now the second most common cause of death in the over 60s and the second most common cause of disability. Experts are calling for improved prevention measures and better neurological care in all parts of the world.

London, July 2017 – “Stroke is the epidemic of the 21st century,” says Prof Raad Shakir, President of the World Federation of Neurology (WFN), explaining the organisation’s decision to adopt “Stroke is a brain attack: Prevent it – treat it” as its motto for this year’s World Brain Day which is celebrated in partnership with the World Stroke Organisation (WSO). World Brain Day was launched by the WFN in 2014 and is dedicated to a different topic every year. The date for this awareness day was not chosen at random: The WFN was founded on 22 July 1957. “We want to use this initiative to help reduce the number of deaths and disabilities caused by stroke,” Prof Shakir says.

Stroke incident somewhere in the world every two seconds

16 to 17 million people worldwide suffer strokes each year, six million of whom do not survive. There are a greater number of stroke-related deaths each year than deaths linked to AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria put together. “More than one in ten deaths are attributable to stroke, making this cerebrovascular condition the second-largest cause of death in the world among people over 60. It is also a leading cause of disability,” Prof Shakir concludes.

80 percent of sufferers live in developing countries

Worldwide, around a fifth of all women and a sixth of all men have a stroke at some point in their lives. While risk increases with age, young people are also affected: according to the WHO, stroke is the fifth most common cause of death for people in the 15 to 59 age bracket. However, the prevalence and effects of the disease vary greatly throughout the world: “Currently around 80 percent of those affected come from low and middle income countries,” Prof Shakir adds. “Between 2000 and 2008 the incidence of stroke in countries with low to middle incomes was around 20 percent higher than in high income nations. This shows that having a stroke is not inevitable, but very much depends on a person’s environment. This is something we can and must work on.”

Stroke classified as a neurological disease by the WHO

In light of the growing significance of stroke for the global disease burden, the World Health Organisation has also changed its stance and redefined stroke in the International Classification of Diseases (ICD). “The categorization of strokes in the ICD-10 was inconsistent and outdated”, Prof Bo Norrving, Chair of the WSO’s Global Policy Committee, explains. “While stroke was listed under the cardiovascular disease category, transient ischemic attacks were attributed to diseases of the nervous system and silent cerebrovascular diseases were included in the section of incidental imaging findings.” The newest version, ICD-11, expected to be approved by the World Health Assembly next year, will reflect the recommendations of an expert advisory committee and create a single block of “cerebrovascular diseases” within the category of diseases of the nervous system which includes all relevant conditions. 

“This latest development in the ICD-11 process correctly signals that stroke is a brain disease and contributes to improved clarity and clinical usefulness”, according to Prof Norrving. “Stroke is no longer in the shadow of other cardiovascular diseases and the position of stroke as one of the most important non-communicable disease, possible to prevent and treat, is strengthened.”

Stroke increasingly treatable thanks to breakthroughs

“There are few other diseases for which treatment options have improved so radically over the past decade and a half,” Prof Stephen Davis, Immediate Past President of the WSO, confirms. “Until recently we were largely powerless in the face of stroke and couldn’t do much more than alleviate some of the consequences – but today we can finally say that strokes are treatable.”

The first major breakthrough came 15 years ago when intravenous thrombolysis was first introduced. Under this procedure, stroke-causing blood clots in vessels of the brain are dissolved using medication. “Widespread use of this method has not only saved many lives, but also led to a huge expansion of neurological infrastructure and the introduction of stroke units in many countries. This alone can reduce mortality by about 20 percent in a single year,” Prof Davis adds.

In around 10 percent of cases, the occlusions are so large that thrombolysis does not work. However, endovascular thrombectomy was introduced a few years ago to provide an option in precisely these kinds of cases. The procedure involves removing a clot from a blood vessel in the brain using a catheter inserted via the groin. Data have recently been made available which show that even blockages that are more than six hours old can be treated successfully. “Numerous international studies have shown that endovascular treatment represents a major advance compared with medication-only treatment,” Prof Davis notes.

Major variances in quality of care provision worldwide

There is still a long way to go before these breakthroughs benefit all patients worldwide. “Unfortunately there are still a lot of countries that simply do not have the infrastructure and specialists in neurology,” says WFN President Prof Shakir. “While wealthy countries have three neurologists per 100,000 inhabitants, the total for low income nations drops to just 0.03. The fact that the chances of surviving a stroke depend greatly on where someone lives is unacceptable and something that the WFN and its partners must tackle with all of the resources available to them,” says Prof Shakir, issuing a call for international solidarity on the issue.

“Stroke, its treatment and prevention must be given the highest priority in healthcare policy in every country,” WFN Secretary General Prof Wolfgang Grisold confirms. “As advocates for stroke patients, we will not tire of calling for and promoting fair distribution of treatment opportunities for stroke patients. But for this to happen, all hospitals need to be equipped with specialist stroke units, and medicine for basic thrombolysis treatment needs to be made available – but that’s not all. It is of great importance to raise awareness in the general population for the most common risk factors, in particular hypertension, for early detection and for the need for adequate care, not only in the acute stage, but also on the long term.  As the prevalence of stroke sufferers left with permanent disability is still high, efforts towards permanent care facilities need to be a task of national neurological and stroke societies.”

Ten risk factors responsible for 90 percent of all strokes

A large proportion of all strokes are avoidable, according to data from the INTERSTROKE study. “Ten influenceable risk factors are responsible for 91 percent of all strokes worldwide,” Prof Michael Brainin, WSO President Elect, highlights. “These are high blood pressure, physical inactivity, an unfavourable situation of blood lipids, poor diet, a high waist-to-hip ratio, psychosocial factors, smoking, a high alcohol intake, cardiac disease and diabetes.” An analysis of the results of stroke-related data generated by the 188-country Global Burden of Disease Study came to a similar conclusion, but like other current studies also highlighted air pollution as an additional risk factor.

High blood pressure is the single largest risk factor for stroke. “Hypertension is behind almost 50 percent of all strokes and also increases the risk of intracerebral haemorrhage, which often leads to particularly severe disabilities,” Prof Brainin warns. “There is potential to add 100 million healthy years worldwide solely from effective strategies designed to reduce strokes.” In addition to focusing on the effective treatment of diabetes, increased blood lipids and atrial fibrillation, as well as preventing obesity and promoting physical activity, experts are also pushing for the speedy introduction of a global smoking ban.

Early detection saves lives

“Alongside prevention, we also have to promote awareness of how to detect and respond correctly in an emergency,” Prof Mohammad Wasay, head of the WFN Public Awareness Committee, confirms another of the aims of this year’s World Brain Day. Experts believe that almost 70 percent of patients fail to identify transitory ischemic attacks – a temporary interruption to the brain’s blood supply – and even mild strokes. Even when symptoms are identifiable, almost one in three people do not seek immediate help. “Reducing the amount of time that elapses between the emergence of the initial symptoms and the patient receiving care is a central factor in improving treatment outcomes, and can save many sufferers from a lifetime of severe disability,” Prof Wasay says.

To help people with a non-medical background identify the wide range of different – and often unclear – symptoms, the WFN and WSO draw attention to some simple guidelines to provide clarity in the event of a suspected stroke incident. The only thing that non-experts have to remember is the “FAST” mnemonic:

• for face drooping: Ask the person to smile. Does one side of their face droop?
• A for arm weakness: Ask the person to raise both arms. Is one arm numb and does it drift downward?
• S for speech difficulty: Ask the person to repeat a simple sentence. Is their speech slurred? Are they able to correctly repeat the words, or are they hard to understand? 
• T for time to call an ambulance: If someone shows any of these symptoms, time is crucial. Call an ambulance or help get the person to hospital immediately.

Rehabilitation works

“World Brain Day is also intended to give sufferers grounds for positivity,” comments 42-year-old Tal Federman, who had a stroke 14 years ago. “Overnight I went from being a happy young woman to someone who was completely dependent on other people,” she recalls. Previously a successful architect, she required round-the-clock care, was unable to sit upright, and could not wash herself or eat unaided. Tal Federman spent an entire year in hospital and had to battle her way through numerous rehab programmes before she could return home to her family.

She has now published her experiences in a handy guidebook, and works as a consultant helping others to come to terms with the difficult period following a stroke. “Rehabilitation is a long – sometimes lifelong – process, but it can be successful,” she said. “No one can manage it alone, and the support of loved ones and other helpers is very important. But one should never lose sight of the fact that carers may also be overwhelmed, and may themselves require help.”

World Brain Day Webinar Press Conference
The WFN and the WSO are organizing a Webinar Press Conference on Thursday, 20 July 2017, 12.00 UTC 
(for local time see here).
The live meeting room for this event can be found at https://www.wfneurology.org/world-brain-day-2017.
After the Webinar, the presentations and recordings of statements can also be found there.

WFN - World Brain Day Press Office
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