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Row erupts over first cousin marriage comments

11 February 2008
Appeared in BioNews 444

A Government Minister has sparked anger amongst British Asians, following an article in the Sunday Times in which he highlighted the higher risk of health problems in the children of first cousins. Speaking specifically about the cultural practises of families originating from rural Pakistan, environment minister Phil Woolas, MP for Oldham East and Saddleworth, told the newspaper that 'a lot of arranged marriages are with first cousins', which produce 'lots of genetic problems in terms of disability'.

Woolas' comments echo those made by Ann Cryer, Labour MP for Keighley, Bradford, on a BBC Newsnight programme in 2005. Ms Cryer supported Mr Woolas' claims, saying that more than half the children in the paediatric wards in her constituency are from the Asian community, even though they make up only 20-30 per cent of the population. She told BBC Radio 4's Today programme that she hoped leaders of mosques and community centres would now encourage parents to move away from cousin marriages.

However, geneticist Steve Jones told Today that although there was a higher risk of first cousins having children with health problems, drinking or smoking in pregnancy was 'as bad if not worse'. He also pointed out that 'in Bradford, the Office of National Statistics says there is an increase of about five or so infant deaths a year because of cousin marriage, particularly among the Asian community there', but that the effect was not that great, given that there are around 70 infant deaths altogether in Bradford per year.

A spokesman for the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), which has called for Mr Woolas to be sacked, said the MP's comments were 'racist and typical of the Islamophobia we have witnessed in large parts of the media recently'.

The more closely related two people are, the more likely they are to carry copies of the same mutated gene. Unrelated parents have around a two per cent risk of having a child with a severe genetic condition, while in first cousins this risk rises to five per cent. So on average, 95 per cent of the children of first cousins will be healthy, although the risk of a recessive disorder increases if there is a family tradition of such marriages. In addition, certain disorders are more common in some populations - for example cystic fibrosis in people of white European origin and thalassaemia in people of Asian and Mediterranean descent.

The Department of Health said in a statement that it did not issue blanket advice to health professionals or members of the public on such a 'complicated and sensitive' issue as the risk of inheriting rare genetic disorders. 'While it is the case that marriages between cousins can result in an increased risk of inherited disease and disability, the key factor in understanding a family's risk is understanding the relevance of any existing history of genetic conditions within the family', it continued, adding 'this is best discussed and assessed in the context of a referral to specialised genetics services. We need to ensure that ethnic minority communities know how to access these services and the advice and support they can offer'.

SOURCES & REFERENCES
Backing for minister over first-cousin marriage comments
The Guardian |  11 February 2008
Downing Street rebuke for minister who warned of birth defects in Pakistani cousin marriages
The Daily Mail |  11 February 2008
Minister warns of 'inbred' Muslims
The Sunday Times |  10 February 2008
No 10 steps back from cousins row
BBC News Online |  11 February 2008
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