Asians considering marrying within their own family are being asked to consider the genetic risks because of research that suggests the practice increases the chance of children being born with disabilities.
The highly sensitive issue is being tackled for the first time by community leaders in Bradford, home to one of Britain's biggest Asian communities, where research has found that Asian children are 17.5 times more likely to be born with neuro-degenerative conditions than white children, three times more likely to suffer profound deafness and almost twice as likely to have cerebral palsy. Several studies have established a link between inter-family marriage and such disorders.
The Bangladeshi Porishad community centre in the city's Manningham district, which is undertaking the project, described the issue yesterday as the most serious facing local Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities.
Successive health authorities had shied away from the issue because they feared their interference would be branded racist, said Abu Bashir, the centre's president.
Across Bradford, 392 children are registered with serious disabilities, of whom 145 (37 per cent) are of Asian origin, though Asians constitute 28 per cent of the under-18 population. By 2011, it is predicted this may rise to 50 per cent.
Research by Bradford social services shows that almost five out of every thousand Asian children in the city suffer from deafness, compared with just over one in a thousand among the non-Asian community. Nearly six Asian children in a thousand suffer from cerebral palsy, compared with three in a thousand among the rest of the community. Thirty-four Asian children were listed in 1998 as suffering from neurological damage, compared with six in the wider community.
Inter-family marriage is not the only cause, Bradford health advisers stress. Other factors in child disability include poverty, lack of exercise, bad housing and poor diet.
"Blaming inter-marriage can become an easy answer," warned Mike Corrigan, a child health and disability manager in the city.
However, the Institute of Child Health, part of University College London, believes deafness, cerebral palsy and poor eyesight can all be caused by recessive genes passed from parent to child and that the chance of inheriting a genetically determined illness are greater if the parents are blood relatives.
Mr Bashir said marriage was clearly a factor among comparable working-class families. "Marrying within the family does increase the risk but not everybody knows it," he said. "We are not saying don't marry within the family but we do want people to make an informed decision. We do believe there has been an element of racism associated with the issue, stemming from a feeling that inter-family marrying should not go on, and this also explains why it has not been tackled."
Couples will be urged to consider counselling and blood tests to identify gene deficiencies, with the hope of reducing child disability in the city within five years. It is also hoped that local schools will allow Mr Bashir and his two project workers to address Year 11 and sixth form pupils. "The take-up of ante-natal services is poor among our community," said Mr Bashir. "People leave it to fate and say it is God's will or that it's a sort of punishment. Why blame God if you can do something about it?"
Inter-family marriages - legal under English law - have taken place over many generations within some Muslim families and are valued for the cultural strength, social cohesion and support they provide.
Marriages between nieces and distant uncles are permissible in Bangladeshi (though not Pakistani) culture and create a high risk of disorders, according to the Institute of Child Health.
Marrying a first cousin is more common among Pakistani Muslims and a 1994 Policy Studies Institute report suggested that the practice was likely to increase.
The report also found a geographical and class distinction: manual workers were twice as likely to be married to a first or second cousin as skilled workers, while 60 per cent of Pakistanis who had such marriages were based in the conurbations of West Yorkshire - where most Pakistani families moved from the Punjab - and the West Midlands, compared with 33 per cent in the South-east.
Yasmin Hussain, of Leeds University's centre for research and primary care, said wider fluency in English was making ethnic minority communities more open to advice. "Some families still think their children's disabilities are a result of previous misdemeanours but in the last 10 to 20 years those ideas have been eroded," she said.Reuse content