x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Premarital screening up by more than a third

There has been a 36 per cent rise in couples undergoing screening, a majority of whom are Emirati, but experts want tests to be done earlier.

DUBAI // The number of people having premarital genetic screening in Dubai has risen by more than a third in two years, the latest figures from the Dubai Health Authority show.

Statistics from the Genetics Centre at the DHA show about 4,500 people were screened last year, compared with 3,600 in 2010 and 3,300 in 2009.

Most of the patients having the screens are Emirati.

Experts say premarital screening has played an important role in reducing the number of genetic disorders in children.

This is particularly true in the case of thalassaemia, a blood disorder that affects nearly half of the Emirati population.

Premarital screening is required before a couple can be issued a marriage certificate in the UAE, but doctors say more work needs to be done to educate the younger population.

Dr Fatheya Al Khaja, a thalassaemia specialist at the Dubai Thalassaemia Centre, believes students should be screened as early as secondary school.

"It is called premarital screening but it shouldn't just be done before marriage," Dr Al Khaja said. "By then it's often too late as the parents and children have already made a commitment.

"It's very difficult to convince a couple not to go through with the marriage at that point. We need to try to reach them as early as possible."

Testing across Ministry of Health centres has remained steady, with 18,329 people screened last year compared with 18,558 in 2010. Of those screened last year, 9,871 were Emirati and 8,508 were expatriates.

The Health Authority - Abu Dhabi (Haad) says 60 per cent of people who were screened last year in the emirate were Emirati.

About 10,000 people have been screened in the capital since the electronic database was set up in April last year. The screening process looks for thalassaemia, sickle-cell anaemia, hepatitis B and C, syphilis and rubella.

Of those tested, 186 were found to be beta-thalassaemia carriers, six had the disease and 179 were told they had hepatitis B.

These were the most common results among those tested, said Dr Farida Al Hosani, the manager of the communicable diseases department at Haad.

Dr Al Hosani said the most important part of the process for those who tested positive was counselling.

"This is the most crucial step. They will also be referred to a specialist for further information," she said. "Then, once [the couple] accepts the certificate, it is issued."

If both parties do not sign the certificate of health, it will be invalid.

Dr Al Khaja said of equal importance was reaching out to couples who were married before mandatory screenings were introduced six years ago.

"The law only came into place recently so it is not just premarital testing we need to worry about, but post-marital screening as well - couples who were not tested but can still have children," she said.

"They need to take the counselling they receive from their doctors seriously. It's a responsibility for the community, not just the healthcare professionals."

Prenatal diagnosis is an option for couples who are already married or who choose to wed despite positive screening results, Dr Al Khaja said.

If both parents carry the trait for a recessive genetic disease, with each pregnancy there is a 25 per cent chance that a child will be born with the disease, 50 per cent chance the child will be a carrier and 25 per cent chance the child will be unaffected.

Couples who intend to marry can visit one of the 14 primary healthcare centres in Dubai for screening. The tests are offered at no charge for Emiratis and cost about Dh400 for expatriates.

There are also eight centres run by Haad in Abu Dhabi, and nine centres across the Northern Emirates, run by the Ministry of Health.