Why Saudi Arabia Is Pushing Premarital Genetic Screening

In Saudi Arabia, if you're planning to tie the knot, there's a step you must go through that doesn't happen anywhere else: You have to get a test for genetic disease. Hereditary blood diseases like sickle cell and beta thalassemia are prevalent in this part of the world, where marriage between cousins is common. A new awareness campaign around genetic disorders aims to reduce the spread of these illnesses.

Saudi Arabia made premarital screening and genetic risk assessment mandatory over a decade ago, hoping that if a couple found out they were at high risk of passing on a hereditary disease to their offspring, they would reevaluate their match. Thousands of couples have called off marriages after finding they were "genetically incompatible." But just knowing their test results, it turns out, has not been enough. Many couples at risk of passing on genetic diseases go ahead and get married, with the expectation that they will have children.

And so, according to the Saudi Gazette, the country has launched a new campaign to raise awareness about genetic diseases, and what causes them.

In Saudi Arabia, one factor contributing to the rate of genetic disease is that there is a high prevalence of consanguineous marriages, or marriages between family members. It's a preferred practice, with some 40 per cent of Saudis marrying close relatives. But whatever your social values, it creates a relatively high risk for passing on recessive genetic diseases. When we procreate, stronger genes often naturally win out over diseased ones. But if you have children with a member of your family, you're reducing the number of healthy genes that can compete with diseased ones. Mating between first cousins is especially problematic, because the gene pool is literally cut in half. And while the country mandates testing for common hereditary diseases, Saudi scientists have also begun uncovering diseases that have never been seen before, let alone made it onto a screening test.

"One of the misconceptions couples have is that premarital testing is sufficient to determine whether they will have children with genetic diseases," medical student Mohamed Aljuhani, who is leading the campaign in Saudia Arabia, told the Saudi Gazette. "There are so many diseases that are not tested for and can have a high risk of developing. One solution is avoiding marrying relatives, which is a significant factor leading to genetic disorders."

The awareness campaign is being run by medical students at King Abdulaziz University, under the supervision of the Princess Al-Jawhara Center of Excellence in Research of Hereditary.

Saudi Arabia has poured a lot of money and energy into solving the problem of genetic disease in the country, and its efforts have been well-studied in academia. In this desert nation of 32 million, human genetics research has boomed over the past decade, culminating with the launch of the Saudi Human Genome Program. The Saudi genome team has proposed genetically screening all 150,000 or so couples who plan to marry each year, rather than continue with the current test, which uses biochemical analysis to look for signs of disease in blood samples. A DNA screening would allow them to screen for thousands of diseases with one sample, instead of just a handful.

Other countries with high risk for genetic diseases have undertaken a similar approach. In Iceland, where the small population creates a risk of accidentally falling for your relative, an app helps determine whether people are related. The small Icelandic company deCODE has sequenced the full genomes of thousands of Icelanders, and collected genetic samples from more than 100,000 others in order to identify genetic risks unique to the small Atlantic Ocean island of 330,000 people.

In Saudi Arabia, efforts to push forward into a genetically optimised future have at times clashed with local customs. The successes and challenges of these campaigns in Iceland and Saudi Arabia could provide a future roadmap for the U.S. and other nations, where one day genetic testing could put an end to genetic disease -- at least among people who can afford a test.

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    Sadly, until a certain book that says it’s okay to marry your first cousin is edited, I can’t see inbreeding declining in that part of the world...

      2 books.

      Dont forget America exists. Particularly the southern states like alabama.

        But not recommended. And its a violation of indigenous cultural law, so not legal for everyone.

          Who's your mob, Sean?

            Can I ask what does that have to do with his comment?
            It seems you're making the assertion that if he is not part of a group he can have no knowledge or opinion.

              It's pretty uncommon for non-Indigenous people to have knowledge of cultural lore, so I thought he must be. Lore also varies a lot between different language groups, so I was wondering which one he was talking about in this case. No malice intended, just making connections and learning more.

                That's ok and thanks for the response but it did come across to me as a defensive retort for no apparent reason.
                What may be uncommon for one is common for another, when I was in high school we had an entire class for 2 years dedicated to aboriginal history and culture.

                  A bit of context from me as well: I'm speaking from the perspective of an Aboriginal person. I rarely hear whitefellas talk about lore, so when I do see someone mention it, it's second nature to ask where they are from and who their mob is. As you'd know, it's not just one homogeneous culture.

        Hence why we can’t talk about this topic honestly without addressing the cultural norms that underpin the issue.

        If it was a matter of law, then logically we should expect that over half of the Australian population would be inbred (along with every other country where it’s legal). But we don’t see anywhere near the levels of incest in cultures who take more moderate attitudes towards the texts in a certain philosophy book (Torah>Bible>Quran).

        People can poke fun of me and reduce my argument to Islamaphobia - actually highest rates of inbreeding found in Mideast was in a Jewish population in Iraq, and sorry @djbear the south isn’t even on the same chart, that’s just a stereotype - but it’s a serious issue. It’s not bigoted or religiophobic to point out that literal interpretations of religious text are incompatible with mass population.

        This is one issue where we should be culturally insensitive because consanguinity leads to all kinds of problems and disease including low intelligence, mental health issues, violent/aggressive behaviour, not to mention genetic disorders etc.

        It’s not a coincidence that some of the most violent regions on earth (Mideast / North Africa) also have the highest rates of inbreeding (for around 1,400 years). If we’re to understand, let alone solve, the issues plaguing those regions it’s important to understand that the issue is a product of low levels of modern education and public health infrastructure along with geographic isolation of highly diverse communities.

        Genetic research and legislation are brilliant. But they won’t achieve anything without a cultural shift away from more fundamental interpretations of text. It’s not enough to say couples are “genetically incompatible”, it needs to be explained why.

        It’s a public health issue, like aids: this is what aids does - practice safe sex. This is what inbreeding does - don’t inbreed.

        So yeah, you can make a point of law and ignore the fact that the reason we don’t have so many married first cousins is because family / community / religious and educational institutions provide health education that’s based on contemprary facts regardless of their contradiction with some really old advice... and ironically, as regards institutions, it’s the law that they include a modern, factual sex education in their syllabus.

        Anyway, the issue is fascinating. I was shocked when I first learned of the statistics. Google it; it’s mind boggling and a lot of things will start to make more sense. It should certainly get more coverage in media / social commentary than it does, because I believe it’s central to a lot of other issues.

        Last edited 03/01/18 11:50 pm

        So? It's not encouraged here. It's actually discouraged here. It's encouraged there.

        When we get up to the point where we match the lowest in the Islamic world (23% iirc, Turkey), then your moral relativism will be relevant. Moral relativism is one of the worst argument positions you can take. Just because it's right somewhere else, doesn't make it right here; just because it's legal here, doesn't mean it's right there. Or here.

        Last edited 04/01/18 12:38 pm

        But not common practice in the west, nor encouraged. As one poster said, it may have been necessary when there were few humans in an area.

        However, it is still widespread in MO lands - as are "marriages" to underage, often pre-pubescent, girls who are powerless to resist being sold into this form of slavery.

        Last edited 06/01/18 10:10 pm

    Question: so is this an implicit admittance that their religion is wrong to endorse and promote close-relation marriage?

      It may have been OK back then but now we are more of a genetic mess and it causes more problems now. We don't have viable samples from back then to test.

        Yes, but Muslims trumpet their religion as an eternally perfect message i.e. what was made legal back then is legal today. Their founder's own daughter married her first uncle -- you can't get a bigger endorsement of close-relation marriage than that! But nowhere did their founder say that close-relation marriage is only legal for another x amount of years. At least it is good to see that some Muslims are slowly shifting the unquestioning reverence they reserve for their faith.

      did you know a mufti wanted to ban women in Saudi Arabia from wearing seat belts because it accentuated the breasts?

      the state of Qatar also threatened to slap a fatwa on any Muslim wanting to land on Mars, as this is a breech of Sharia Law

      Last edited 04/01/18 11:59 am

        It also damages their ovaries or something too.

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