Medical community at war over cousin marriage

Cousin marriage is popular in Britain's Pakistani community
Cousin marriage is popular in Britain's Pakistani community

Deep rifts are occurring in the medical community over an appropriate response to Britain's level of cousin marriage.

A meeting of medical practitioners and geneticists organised by the Progress Educational Trust in London last night revealed deep rifts over the appropriate response to high levels of cousin marriage in Britain's Pakistani community.

Many doctors and GPs are calling for a government education drive to warn couples of the dangers of having children with their cousins, but some geneticists are branding the drive an excuse to interfere with people's private lives, pointing to the relatively low risk level of the marriages.

Talking to, Ruth Deech, former chair of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, reiterated her call for a widespread public education campaign.

"The emphasis on taking care while pregnant is huge and I can't see why this is any different," she said.

"Even if the risk is small we need an educational campaign like we had for smoking."

But Alan Bittles, adjunct professor at the centre for comparative genomics at Murdoch University and fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, responded: "There's a level of arrogance in comparing a smoking campaign with interfering in people's intimate relationships."

Professor Bittles pointed out that while reproducing with a first cousin may double the risk of a genetic abnormality the absolute numbers remained relatively low.

"We're dealing with very, very low numbers," he said. "The risks are grossly overstated.

"There's a feeling the issue is being used to get at the community."

But those views were attacked by Muslim GP Mohamed Walji, whose practise in Birmingham has produced health education leaflets on the subject, leading to negligible levels of cousin marriage in an area where most of his patients are Pakistani Muslims.

"I'm not an expert, or a geneticist or an academic," he said. "I'm a Muslim and this mainly affects Muslims. I see the result of this problem in my practise."

Dr Walji stressed reproducing with a first cousin was a "very significant" cause of infant death.

"There is a problem and we need to tackle it sensibly," he added.

The issue of cousin marriage has been in the headlines since research two years ago showed British Pakistanis were 13 times more likely to have children with recessive disorders than the general population.

Earlier in the year environment minister Phil Woolas made a statement warning parents of the dangers of cousin marriage.

"If you are supportive of the Asian community then you have a duty to raise this issue," he said.

But Number 10, always wary of being seen to meddle in such a sensitive issue, distanced itself from his comments.

A spokesman for the prime minister said: "The government's position is we believe these matters are best addressed locally, by local members of the community as well as by professional healthcare advisers."


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