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First cousin marriages: a public health issue?

1 December 2005
By Ann Cryer MP
MP for Keighley
Appeared in BioNews 337
In 2002, 42.2 per cent of all births in Bradford were to families of Pakistani origin, and a further 5.8 per cent were to others from the Indian subcontinent. The incidence of deafness amongst Asian children in Bradford is 4.60/1000 (compared with 1.38/1000 amongst non-Asian children). For cerebral palsy the incidence amongst Asian children is 5.48/1000 - which compares with 3.18/1000 amongst non-Asian children. It is estimated locally that 75 per cent of the cases involve parents who have a consanguineous marriage.

Seen in isolation, the numbers at stake for any one particular illness or condition may seem irrelevant but, taken together, a more serious picture emerges. Bradford Royal Infirmary has identified 138 different autosomal recessive disorders, and has become a centre of excellence as a result of the experience it has gained from caring for such a disproportionately high number of cases.

If someone chooses to have unprotected sex, drink alcohol, eat greasy food and smoke cigarettes then they are aware of the risks - there is a greater chance of catching HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) or Chlamydia, and suffering from liver damage, obesity and lung cancer. Through public awareness programmes and education, people are actively discouraged from taking such unnecessary risks and adopting a healthy lifestyle. At the end of the day, it is up to the individual to make the choice - but they are given the opportunity to make that choice from an informed position.

Public health programmes are not solely for the benefit of the individual - they are also for the benefit of the wider society. Prevention is better - and cheaper - than cure. The NHS is one of our greatest assets and everyone can expect the best of care whatever their problem, but it does not have unlimited resources. If we were able to reduce the number of people who were dependent on increasingly expensive combination therapy to hold HIV at bay, we could spend more on research to find a cure. The more we save on combating liver or lung cancer or on palliative care, the more we can direct towards finding a cure for cancer. The more people we persuade to avoid taking a risk that might prejudice their well-being, the greater the chance of a better, longer life. For the sake of the individual and for wider society - we must not be afraid to address these issues.

The majority of first cousin marriages involve a husband or wife coming from the Indian subcontinent. Literacy amongst women in Mir Pur - from where the vast majority of the Pakistani community in the Bradford District originates - is about 3 per cent. Are those families given the chance to make an informed decision with regard to family planning? Do they understand the risks that are involved in having children from a consanguineous marriage?

Not only do we have to deal with the problem of illiteracy but we must tackle our own inhibitions and move away from political correctness. Anyone who seeks to excuse the passing on of terrible illness due to cultural traditions needs to know that that sort of culture is unacceptable in the twenty first century.

We owe it to parents, families, the unborn children and society as a whole to have the courage to openly discuss this issue as a relevant and important public health matter.

6 June 2011 - by Professor Alan Bittles 
Not having been in the audience for Professor Steve Jones' John Maddox Lecture at the Hay Festival 2011 - distance and the lack of an invitation being my excuses - I have had to rely on reports on its content in the press. And according to the testament of Jonathan Wynne-Jones, religious affairs correspondent of the Telegraph, a highly entertaining event it seems to have been...
6 September 2010 - by Anshu Rastogi 
'When Cousins Marry' (Dispatches) was a difficult film to make. It was painful at times but immensely rewarding in the end. The film was commissioned because it highlighted a potentially avoidable cause of serious disabilities in hundreds of British children each year...
10 May 2010 - by Victoria Kay 
Charles Darwin's concerns that his children's ill health was due to his cousin marriage were justified, according to a new study. The UK-Spanish study, which analysed four generations of Darwin's family, provides statistical evidence of a link between ill health and the degree of inbreeding in his and his wife's families....
22 March 2010 - by Professor Marcus Pembrey 
A report and analysis promoting Baroness Ruth Deech's views on cousin marriage, published in the Times newspaper on Saturday, makes some serious errors and does nothing to either clarify the true health impact of cousin marriage or help couples at risk of recessive genetic conditions...
22 March 2010 - by Dr Vivienne Raper 
A leading bioethics professor and crossbench peer is to reignite the debate on the genetic risks of marriage between first cousins...
12 December 2005 - by Alastair Kent and Dr Pritti Mehta 
British Pakistanis are under the spotlight yet again, this time not for alleged links with terrorism, but for the practice of cousin marriage. Last week in BioNews, Ann Cryer, Labour MP for Bradford, re-presented her case against cousin marriage. This followed the 'Newsnight' special report (16 November) highlighting that British...
5 December 2005 - by Dr Aamra Darr 
The recent Newsnight programme (broadcast on BBC2, on 16 November) on cousin marriage attempted to deal with a complex health issue, involving the marriage preference of a minority ethnic group, genetic risk, lay and professional understanding of this risk and the attempts to deal with it. Genetics is a relatively...
18 November 2005 - by BioNews 
A British politician has said that marriages between first cousins should be outlawed because of the increased risk of genetic disorders in their children. Ann Cryer, the MP for Keighley, Bradford, told the BBC's Newsnight programme that British Asians should be persuaded to abandon the tradition. A report commissioned by...
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