It's not simply a "tribal issue". According to Dr Fatma Bastaki, a consultant paediatrician and clinical geneticist who is the head of the paediatrics department at Al Wasl Hospital in Dubai, "three per cent of all babies will be born with a congenital malformation or mental retardation. That is the international statistic." For children of parents who are related, the number can be as high as six per cent, she warned. Few in the UAE realise, however, that planning ahead can lower the incidence for everyone, as The National reported yesterday.
Although the risks associated with consanguinity are now widely recognised within the UAE - screening is compulsory for first cousins who plan to marry - genetic counselling should still be a priority for those who aren't related. Expectant parents take note: all children are at risk. That means a nationwide effort is needed to combat a lack of awareness about the prevention of genetic conditions.
Yet Dr Bastaki's warnings ought to be heeded by others, not just parents. She also warned of "insufficient genetic services and inadequate healthcare prior to and during pregnancy". Nor was she alone; Dr Fatma al Jasmi, a metabolic consultant at Tawam Hospital and assistant professor in the department of paediatrics at the UAE University's faculty of medicine and health sciences in Al Ain agreed: "For a family with a member who has a genetic disorder, they are all alone and feel they have no one who shares their difficulties."
Thankfully, Dubai isn't shying away from confronting the challenge head on. On Saturday, the emirate will host the first international genetic metabolic conference. Although Dubai's health care practitioners are listening, the hope is that the nation sits up and takes note. And while raising awareness is key, these efforts would benefit from federal support and engagement on the issue. Although the first of three conferences on genetics kicks off this weekend, efforts to address the topic should not begin and end there.