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When Cousins Marry (Dispatches): The producer's perspective

6 September 2010
By Anshu Rastogi
Producer of 'When Cousins Marry' (Dispatches), Channel 4
Appeared in BioNews 574
'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. It was a subject of great sensitivity which many journalists and policy makers fear to discuss in case they are accused of racism.

The programme was not about banning the practice but was part of Channel Four's remit to give in-depth coverage to issues not covered properly elsewhere. As a journalist and programme-maker, from a scientific background (molecular biology), I relished the challenge of combining my passion for human stories with my keen interest in understanding science.

I have worked in current affairs for the last eight years and this has been the hardest programme I have worked on. From the families affected to the politicians, medical professionals and community leaders involved - not a single element of this story was easy to negotiate or tell.

My job as producer/director was to make sure the investigation was pursued accurately and no stone was left unturned during the process of making the film. I worked alongside a fantastic team. From my researchers to my executive - everyone involved agreed this programme was in their 'top ten' of most difficult films to make.

The problems began from the moment we started to make inquiries; the constant excuses of busy schedules, requests to 'ring back later', vague email responses and outright disinterest.

Do not get me wrong, of course, we were making a TV documentary and these problems are to be expected in any production, let alone one covering an extremely sensitive subject matter. But not in such volumes, from so many corners, from the many education and health professionals we contacted, as well as all the politicians, whom either refused to take part or even answer research questions.

It was this climate of not speaking out by those in positions of influence and power that disheartened me the most. For those experts and contributors who did take a leap of faith, I am grateful and humbled by their participation and help.

During the production, I immersed myself in the field of consanguinity research. With more than 70 British medical papers and more internationally, this was heavy reading even for someone with a science background.

It made me realise how medical technology is advancing, but still with obstacles to go through. Also, it made me realise that any consanguineous community in the UK, such as the majority of British Pakistani's, can be equipped with knowledge of genetic counselling, carrier testing, gene mapping and patterns of inheritance causing recessive disorders.

In fact, we found the exact opposite. Many of the British Pakistanis we talked to felt medical information was not easily accessible or that what information was available was propaganda suggesting they should stop cousin marriages.

My time with the Akhtar family, (the family with six children, three of whom were suffering from Mucolipidosis Type IV) moved me deeply. Their plight? Unimaginable suffering. Their desire? To cure their children. Yet despite this, they were brave enough to take part in the documentary. Similarly, the Mahmood family overcame their fears and took part too.

These families surprised me the most because by being involved in my film, they put all those politicians, medical and health professionals, education and community workers who didn't want to speak out, to shame.

As a programme-maker, I hope I have produced a powerful film that has touched people's lives and most importantly raised awareness and much needed debate regarding a growing public health issue affecting hundreds of children's lives in the UK.

Since the programme has been broadcast, the Channel Four Dispatches website has been inundated with medical requests and comments from concerned families and the general public. This alone, proves how a leap of faith by those in power is one step in the right direction to saving countless children's lives from preventable suffering.

17 September 2012 - by Professor Sandy Raeburn 
This monograph is desperately needed. Western societies, who often chose consanguineous marriage in the past, have grown to fear it and to denigrate communities where it is commonly practiced...
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...
11 October 2010 - by Sarah Pritchard 
A three-year genetics project has been launched in Birmingham to help tackle the city's high infant mortality rate by raising awareness of inherited genetic disorders...
4 October 2010 - by Dr Rizwan Alidina and Dr Mohamed Walji 
A Dispatches programme on rare genetic conditions and cousin marriage aired a few weeks ago ignited much debate. Many people commenting on the programme were correct to say consanguinity alone isn't the issue. However, the high rate of autosomal recessive disorders in some communities remains an important issue, regardless of its intricate and complex causes. This needs to be addressed, preferably with input from general practitioners...
31 August 2010 - by Professor Sandy Raeburn 
Why am I criticising a campaign to reduce the incidence of severe autosomal recessive diseases? After all, I spent five years of my 40-year clinical career in medical genetics living in Oman - a Muslim country where over 50 per cent of marriages are consanguineous? Let's dig deeper!...
22 June 2008 - by Dr Alison Shaw 
Marriage between relatives such as first cousins increases the risk in children not of general birth defects and genetic problems of all kinds but of what geneticists call 'recessive' conditions: those caused by inheriting two copies of a gene each of which carries a mutation. It seems we may each...
31 March 2008 - by Professor Alan Bittles 
First cousin marriage is a topic that frequently evokes distaste and even a sense of moral outrage in the UK and other western countries. Given its sound Biblical tradition (Leviticus 18:7-18) and long-standing legal acceptance this is somewhat surprising, the more so since many famous figures of the...
11 February 2008 - by Dr Jess Buxton 
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...
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...
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