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Dementia — a serious mental deterioration causing memory, learning and behavioural disabilities — is common in HIV-positive patients, according to a study published in Neurology this week (30 January).

Researchers found that 31 per cent of a sample of HIV-positive patients in Uganda had dementia, with older patients more likely to suffer the condition.

This poses yet another challenge to developing countries already faced with mental health problems resulting from conflict, alcoholism and poverty.

"If the rate we saw in our study translates across sub-Saharan Africa, we're looking at more than 8 million people in this region with HIV dementia," said Ned Sacktor of the US-based John Hopkins University who led the study.

The researchers tested 78 HIV-positive patients attending a clinic in Kampala, Uganda for brain function, comparing their results to a group of 100 people without HIV/AIDS.

According to Sacktor, an extremely high rate of HIV dementia in Africa and other poor regions of the world adds enormously to the social and economic burden of their populations and governments.

HIV dementia is treatable and potentially reversible with the same antiretroviral
medication that is used to treat HIV/AIDS. Treatment can restore normal brain functions to some of those affected, but many poor countries cannot afford to treat the condition.

Sacktor hopes studies like his will shed light on the problem in resource-limited countries like Uganda and encourage more programs that bring much-needed medication to these regions.

Fred Kigozi, director of Butabika Hospital for the mentally ill in Kampala, said that although drug abuse, including alcoholism, is the biggest cause of mental illness, HIV/AIDS is also to blame.

Despite this burden, there are not enough facilities in sub-Saharan Africa to treat people with mental health; Butabika is the only psychiatric hospital in Uganda.

Thomas Oyok, a psychiatrist at the Gulu Mental Unit, northern Uganda, said his unit was not equipped enough to handle the increase in mental health patients.

"The basic drugs are not there. We get them from Butabika hospital," Oyok told SciDev.Net.

Link to abstract in Neurology

Reference: Neurology 68, 350 (2007)

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