x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Intermarriage education key to fewer disorders

Informing Emiratis of the risks of marrying relatives is key to reducing the number of children born with birth defects, a geneticist says.

DUBAI // Informing Emiratis of the risks of marrying relatives is the key to reducing the number of children born here with birth defects, a geneticist said yesterday at the opening of an international conference. "It affects 76 out of every 1,000 children and genetic disorders are the fourth most common cause of death in the UAE," said Lihadh al Gazali, professor and senior consultant in clinical genetics in the department of paediatrics at UAE University. The UAE is ranked sixth of 193 nations for prevalence of serious genetic birth defects.

She noted that the UAE had one of the world's highest rates of consanguinity - where a person's parents share ancestry. About half the population is consanguineous. In isolated subpopulations, the proportion is even bigger. Of the 270 genetic diseases found in the UAE, most are inherited only if both parents carry the recessive gene. Due to their "mode of inheritance, recessive disorders are more common in highly consanguineous populations", Prof Gazali said.

Speaking at the opening of the Second International Conference for Special Needs, she urged government and educational institutions to increase awareness of the issue and educate the population on the consequences of intermarriage. While there are screening programmes in the UAE, she said the most effective and appropriate approach would be "family-oriented". People would be screened to determine whether they were carriers of genetic conditions. "Those who are found to be carriers are then advised either not to marry from the family or are offered pre-conception diagnosis, if this becomes available."

Intermarriage is found all over the Arab world. Education from primary school level is necessary, and the media should be used to warn the public of the effects on children, Prof Gazali said. "People are becoming aware, but just not enough. We need to identify the families, and locate those who are carriers and then inform them of the risks." Centres providing professional training and counsellors also need to be established, as well as community genetic services, she said. "The aim is to deliver genetic services in a more comprehensive and cost-effective manner to control common genetic disorders in the country."

According to research from the British National Health Service, the risk of first cousins having a child with a serious medical problem is about five per cent, compared with two per cent for unrelated couples. The risk is higher if either of the related couple has a genetic condition. nsamaha@thenational.ae