Low Public Awareness of Brain Injury

October 05, 2000

New York (MedscapeWire) Oct 5 — Brain injury occurs every 15 seconds and sends more than 1 million individuals to hospital emergency departments each year. Surveillance data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reveals that there are more than 5.3 million Americans — slightly more than 2% of the US population — living with a disability as a result of a traumatic brain injury. Yet despite this nationwide incidence, public awareness of brain injury — and the frequency with which it occurs — is very low, as the results of a recently conducted Harris Poll reflect.

"Brain injury occurs more frequently than breast cancer, AIDS, multiple sclerosis, and spinal cord injury," remarked Allan I. Bergman, President and CEO of the Brain Injury Association (BIA). "It is quite incredible, then, to see how few people believe this is the case. We have quite a task ahead of us in helping raise awareness of brain injury."

Conducted by Harris Interactive, the poll surveyed a sample of 1012 adults aged 18 years or older regarding their awareness of brain and head injury. The poll found that 1 in 3 Americans say that they are not familiar with the term "brain injury." Despite the nationwide number of individuals living with a brain injury, only 1 in 20 individuals surveyed (5%) said that they themselves had sustained a brain injury.

Individuals surveyed were asked whether they thought brain injury occurred more or less frequently than breast cancer, AIDS, multiple sclerosis, and spinal cord injuries. The poll found that 2 of every 3 adults (66%) believe that brain injuries happen less frequently than breast cancer, and half believe they happen less frequently than AIDS. However, the poll did reveal that adults are as likely to believe that brain injuries occur more frequently than spinal cord injuries or multiple sclerosis as to believe that they happen less frequently than either of these conditions.

"There has been the belief that sustaining a brain injury doomed you to life in a persistent vegetative state or coma, " said James McDeavitt, MD, BIA Chairperson and Medical Director of the Charlotte Institute of Rehabilitation. "The results of BIA's Harris Poll certainly prove this belief false, since the majority of those surveyed believe individuals sustaining a brain injury are capable of living 'normal' and productive lives. Hopefully this will help end some of the stigma surrounding brain injury, which leads individuals to deny they've sustained such an injury. Additionally, we certainly hope these results will lead to an increase in community living and support services provided to those who sustain brain injury, since the current level of service is quite low."

One surprising result of the poll was that more than half of adults (56%) surveyed believe that when a person sustains a concussion, he or she sustains a brain injury. Concussions are the most common form of brain injury, yet recent media coverage of these injuries rarely, if ever, linked the term "concussion" with the term "brain injury." This may explain, to some extent, the low number of individuals indicating that they had sustained a brain injury. Recent research of brain scans, conducted by the UCLA Brain Injury Research Center, illustrated the significant changes the brain experiences after sustaining even a single concussion. Concussion is the most common form of brain injury, with an estimated 1 million people sustaining a concussion annually.

The Brain Injury Association (BIA) conducted the Harris Poll as part of a 5-year, cooperative agreement with the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), which is part of the United States Department of Health and Human Services. Public awareness campaigns emphasizing how frequently brain injuries occur, how easily they can be prevented, and the rich potential for life after brain injury will be launched during this 5-year period, and follow-up polls to meeeasure the effectiveness of these campaigns will be undertaken in years 3 and 5 of the agreement.

"Brain injury is the leading cause of death and disability among America's youth," McDeavitt said. "Almost all brain injuries — most often caused by motor vehicle crashes, falls, sporting accidents, and violence — can be prevented. BIA is committed to increasing public awareness of this 'silent epidemic' significantly in the next few years, as well as emphasizing that those who sustain brain injuries are capable of living out their dreams."

The Harris survey, entitled Public Perceptions of Brain and Head Injuries, is available in full text on the Brain Injury Association Web site at http://www.biausa.org/harris_poll_results_full.ht

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