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Wednesday, 21 February, 2001, 01:58 GMT
Campaign tackles Asian child deaths
Babies
Babies born to Birmingham's Pakistanis are most at risk
By BBC News Online's Community Affairs reporter, Cindi John

The high rate of infant mortality among some Asians in Birmingham is being targeted by a campaign to alert people to the dangers of marrying close relatives.

A recent survey by Birmingham Health Authority revealed that babies born to members of the city's Pakistani community were three times more likely to die compared to other races.

The doctor behind the survey, Dr Mamoona Tahir, said around 40% of the deaths were due to genetic illnesses which were made more likely by the traditional practice of marriages between first cousins.

Dr Tahir said such marriages led to a 30-fold increase in the chance of children inheriting genetic disorders like phenylketonuria, a metabolic condition which can cause mental retardation, and thalassaemia, a blood disorder.

Dr Mamoona Tahir
Mamoona Tahir: "Issue must be addressed"

She said such problems were not restricted to Pakistanis in Birmingham and that marrying a first cousin was not in itself a problem but it raised issues which needed to be addressed.

Dr Tahir said: "It's only if you're carrying a particular gene and you're married to a cousin who has inherited the same defective gene from a grandparent, then there are some conditions that you can be pretty sure would affect one in four of their children.

"People should be aware of what the risks are so that if they have alternatives or choices like marrying slightly distant relatives they can make that choice.

"Or if they are already married they can cut down the risk by accessing services early so that that a baby's condition is picked up sooner so that something can be done about it," she added.

Reservations

A series of four seminars for women has already started and a separate session is planned for men.

The sexual health worker, Karamjeet Ballagan, who organised the seminars, has had previous experience of dealing with sensitive subjects having run HIV and Aids awareness campaigns among Birmingham's south Asian communities.

Mrs Ballagan said they had been working closely with community leaders for the past six months to overcome resistance to airing the topic of first cousin marriages publicly.

She said: "Because of the issue being very contentious and challenging not many people have ventured to go out and talk to the community to get their views.

Karamjeet Ballagan
Karamjeet Ballagan: "Community must get involved"

"There may have been seminars with professionals but nothing with community members and leaders and religious organisations.

"The way we tackled the issue was to develop a form of partnership with the community and to contact the leaders, key people at mosques and community spokesmen and try and talk to them to see how we could work together without their culture or religion being affected," she said.

She said the seminars would take the form of cultural events with entertainments laid on as well as workshops addressing a whole range of issues including general baby care and health care.

'Bring it out in the open'

A Pakistani community representative, Mohammed Saleem, welcomed the seminars but said some of the community still had reservations about them.

"This matter has not been brought out into the open but needs to be, and the awareness campaign by the health authority is a good step forward.

"I don't think the issues have has been explained properly but the conferences should help by bringing it down to the ordinary person's level," he said.

Mrs Ballagan said the partnership with the community had already brought positive developments.

She said: "What the community have told us is they want the health authority to provide some sort of genetic test prior to people getting engaged to find out if their genes are affected and if they are then those couples would be willing to do something about the issue, could explore other alternatives.

"So I think we have mobilised people but this is just a beginning and we have got to move on to the next stage," she said.

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See also:

24 Jan 01 | Health
Ethnic health inequalities
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