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Human genome Tuesday, 30 May, 2000, 14:50 GMT 15:50 UK
Employment and insurance
DNA databases
DNA databases could help to weed out sick workers
One of the most far-reaching consequences of decoding the human genome is likely to be the ability to predict people's susceptibility to particular diseases.

In the future, a quick analysis of your DNA could reveal a 28% chance of heart disease by the age of 55 and a 53% chance of Alzheimer's disease by the age of 75.

But what use will be made of that information, particularly for those with high predicted probabilities of illness at young ages.

For the individual, lifestyle changes could make the future significantly brighter. But will employers harness the same data to block jobs for those with a less favourable genetic inheritance?

Would a genetic predilection to alcoholism count against an applicant, even if they were not alcoholics?

Higher premiums

Professor Sheila McLean, Professor of Law and Ethics in Medicine at the University of Glasgow, believes the employment issue is a serious one: "In the whole world, there is just one state in the US which has passed laws preventing employers asking potential employees to divulge genetic information or even take tests.

"And in the UK, the disability anti-discrimination legislation specifically excludes those with gene defects, unless they are already ill."

The temptation for insurance underwriters to use genetic test data to raise, or lower, premiums for customers has also been a high profile concern.

In the US, people have been dropped by their insurers from health cover plans, following adverse genetic tests.

However, as long ago as July 1997, US President Bill Clinton said: "Genetic discrimination is more than wrong, it's a life-threatening abuse of a potentially life-saving discovery".

Voluntary guidelines

US federal law now bans the discrimination on the basis of genetic tests for those in group plans.

In the UK, strident opposition to the use of genetic testing in insurance underwriting has also led to firm, though voluntary, guidelines.

The Association of British Insurers (ABI) code of practice states that results of genetic tests already performed can be asked for but can only be used in underwriting if judged by the Genetics and Insurance Committee to be "reliable and valid for insurance purposes".

It further states that companies cannot ask a person to undergo a genetic test. Adherence to the code of practice is a condition of membership for the ABI, which represents 98% of the UK's insurers.

And, unusually, it states companies cannot offer lower premiums for negative test results. This runs counter to normal underwriting practice.

Mathematical research

However, insurers consider it is necessary to allay public concern that an uninsurable genetic underclass may develop if the industry were to seek out the "good" genetic risks by offering them cheaper insurance.

The suggestion by some independent experts that fears over insurance is a non-issue has been bolstered by mathematical research.

This shows, for a gene conferring a risk of Alzheimer's disease, that the extra healthcare costs are just 10 to 30% for carriers. This is less than for risks already ignored by insurers such as playing sport.

However, there is the possibility of short-term discrimination, says one observer: "In the end, pretty much all of us will have something wrong with our genes and so the risk will even out.

"But, just now, we only know about some of the gene abnormalities and so those people will be stigmatised."

By BBC News Online's Dr Damian Carrington



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16 Sep 99 | Sheffield 99
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