x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Genetic tests urged for engaged couples

Premarital medical screenings will be encouraged for couples seeking government funds for their nuptials, the Ministry of Health said.

ABU DHABI // Premarital medical screenings will be encouraged for couples seeking government funds for their nuptials, the Ministry of Health said yesterday. The goal is to reduce the incidence of hereditary illnesses, officials say - a problem compounded by a high rate of marriages between cousins and other relatives. Lectures and printed information will be available to prospective spouses as part of an agreement between the ministry and Marriage Fund signed yesterday.

Two healthy parents can carry the genes for hereditary illnesses, making their children more likely to suffer from that disease. Testing can identify those genes. The Centre for Arab Genomic Studies has said Gulf countries show a high prevalence of hereditary disorders. Diseases such as sickle-cell anaemia and thalassaemia, for instance, are more common here than elsewhere. And according to the centre, more than 70 out of every 1,000 children born in the UAE, Kuwait and Oman have a birth defect.

Half of Emirati weddings in the UAE are between relatives, which experts say increases the chances of children being born with disorders. In Abu Dhabi, 32 per cent of marriages are between relatives. In Dubai the number is 40 per cent, while 54 per cent of couples in Al Ain are related, according to the centre. In 2008 the ministry launched a campaign promoting premarital testing for thalassaemia, sickle cell anaemia and some sexually transmitted diseases.

And in May, Sheikh Khalifa Medical City marked International Thalassaemia Day, distributing information on the importance of premarital screening. Dr Azzam al Zoebie of the medical city said at the time that the hospital was treating 58 children and 25 adults with the disease. Although people are free to marry if their results show a predisposition for illness in their offspring, it is discouraged, the Minister of Health, Humaid al Qutami, said when the thalassaemia programme was launched in 2008.

"Such negligence not only affects the couple but also their children, their future generations and society as a whole," Mr al Qutami said. amcmeans@thenational.ae