Bad Blood: Tackling Genetic Disorders in the Gulf
July 8, 2010
“To love in sickness and in health” has different meaning in the Gulf. The widespread practice of marrying close relatives—known as “consanguineous marriage”—has led to high rates of birth defects and genetic disorders in the Gulf region. In response, many governments now mandate premarital medical screening.
Consanguinity rates are high throughout the Middle East, but they are especially high in the Gulf, with over 50 percent of Emiratis, Qataris, and Kuwaitis marrying close relatives. The results have been alarming: the six Gulf Cooperation Council countries now all rank among the 20 countries with the greatest prevalence of birth defects (and neighboring Iraq and Yemen help round out the list). Inherited blood disorders such as sickle cell disease and thalassemia, another cause of severe anemia, are also common in the region.
In response, government officials in Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates have made blood tests for genetic and sexually transmitted diseases compulsory before marriage. In Kuwait, for example, couples face up to one year in jail or a $3,485 fine for not obtaining a premarital medical clearance.
Health officials have lauded these measures, with Bahraini officials crediting premarital tests for a 70 percent drop in sickle cell cases over the last 25 years. Still, loopholes threaten to undermine the tests’ effectiveness: they are not required for temporary marriages, which remain common in the region’s Shi’a communities.
This piece is a part of Mezze, a monthly short article series spotlighting societal trends across the region. It originally appeared in the Middle East Program's monthly newsletter, Middle East Notes and Comment. For more information and to receive our mailings, please contact the Middle East Program.