UAE: Getting married? You can now screen to protect future babies from diseases

The initiative aims to identify congenital anomalies, immune deficiencies for motor disabilities and intellectual disabilities in future offspring

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Nandini Sircar

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Published: Tue 30 Jan 2024, 6:00 AM

Last updated: Tue 30 Jan 2024, 10:56 PM

A novel screening in the UAE examining the genetic makeup of couples preparing for marriage can now reduce the risk of genetic diseases in the offspring.

The idea is to also grow the current medical service from a diagnostics standpoint to a preventive measure through screening.

Showcased at Arab Health 2024, which is currently underway at the World Trade Centre, this programme is a collaboration between the Department of Health (DoH) and Abu Dhabi Health Services Company (SEHA).

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As part of its expansion strategy, there are intentions not only to mandate the screening but also ongoing discussions about broadening these services to include expatriate communities.

Parents, especially those who have a history of genetic disorders in their family, can get tested to determine if their children will end up carrying genes that cause disorders.

Tests can identify congenital anomalies, immune deficiencies, motor, cognitive and intellectual disabilities

The initiative aims to identify congenital anomalies, immune deficiencies for motor disabilities, and cognitive and intellectual disabilities in future offspring.

Speaking to Khaleej Times, Dr Asma Al Mannaei, Executive Director of the Research and Innovation Center at DoH said, “The integration of the Genome Programme capabilities into pre-marital screening is a reflection of the Department’s efforts to achieve a ‘healthier community’. The step serves as a preventive measure to safeguard and maintain the health and well-being of our community.”

Dr Asma Al Mannaei
Dr Asma Al Mannaei

She explains the Preventive Programme aims to identify carriers of recessive genetic diseases for couples planning to get married and reveal any prospect of passing unfavourable and chronic genetic diseases to their offspring which may require complex treatment.

Currently in its pilot phase, the voluntary genetic screening that has 264 Emirati couples enrolled, looks into 570 genes that are linked to more than 840 severe autosomal recessive (inheritance characteristic of some genetic disorders) diseases which are relatively common conditions in the UAE due to the high rate of consanguinity.

Additionally, it will link the couples to reproductive medicine solutions and options.

“We have used the genome to inform future couples about their compatibility and based on that they can make decisions about having healthy offsprings,” added Mannaei.

The test serves as a preventive measure that will aid couples with sound medical advice that will assist them in maintaining a healthy future and reduce the risk of genetic diseases.

How is the test done?

From a genetic perspective, there is a pronounced connection between cousin marriages and a heightened likelihood of genetic disorders in the resulting offspring.

Couples desiring to undergo the test are encouraged to undergo genetic testing before getting married, enabling them to formulate a proactive disease management plan.

During their visit to the health centre, a physician will offer a comprehensive overview of the testing process, its goals, capabilities, advantages, and potential challenges.

Dr Asma explained the process. "If both the man and woman are positive for a particular gene, the report may indicate that they have a 25 per cent chance of an offspring with some rare genetic condition. Then one has to explore the different mechanisms that can be employed to minimize the chances of having an offspring with abnormalities. There are different approaches like IVF and other medical solutions. Such couples get full genetic counselling services and are well-informed to make good decisions."

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