Study urges genetic counselling for cousins who marry


Genetic counselling should be offered to Travellers who plan to marry their cousins, a new study has recommended.

Consanguinity, or the marriage of first or second cousins, is quite common among Travellers because they have traditionally married within their own 31,000- strong community. Between 19 and 40 per cent of Traveller marriages are between first cousins; in the past, this has been blamed for the high level of childhood illnesses and death in the Traveller community.

Deaths among children of couples who are first cousins are up to 5 per cent higher than deaths in the general population, the study reports. It was conducted by the Traveller Consanguinity Working Group which was made up of medical, Traveller and religious representatives.

The study says this intermarriage is "not harmful in itself and does not necessarily cause genetic disorders among the children of the consanguineous couple".

However, where a genetic disease is already present in a family, the genetic disease risk to children of that union increased if parents are cousins.

A small number of inherited disorders are more common among the Traveller community than the general population, the report says. One in 11 Travellers carries the gene causing galactosaemia - where the body cannot process galactose in milk, compared with one in 107 in the settled community.

"Given that cousin marriage has long been a central element of the culture of these peoples, it is unrealistic to try to radically change their marriage behaviour," it says. "Instead, the risk of genetic disorders can be reduced by genetic counselling and voluntary, confidential genetic testing before marriage."

Prof Alan Bittles of Edith Cowan University in Perth, said marriage between cousins was seen as a "sleazy" and "fairly dubious practice" in the Western world, yet up to 45 per cent of the world's population was involved in such unions.

In North Africa and the Middle East, up to 50 per cent of all marriages were between cousins or even between uncles and their nieces.

The report recommends that Traveller couples who are cousins be "informed of the general potential risk" and offered a range of supports.

It calls for funding to implement the recommendations, to allow the working group to study the impact of such marriages and to raise awareness of these issues.

A 1980s report in Galway cautioned against marriage between cousins and this was what led the Traveller community to look at it more closely, said Ms Ronnie Fay, the chairwoman of Pavee Point Travellers' Centre.

Ms Rosaleen McDonagh, a Traveller, said cousin marriage had been used to condemn and stigmatise Traveller culture. "Cousin marriage has been seen as socially and morally wrong. Today we acknowledge there is little basis for these attitudes."

Intermarriage was common because there were strong social and economic reasons for it and it strengthened family ties, she said.

The Minister of State for Health, Mr Ivor Callely, said the report's recommendations were being studied by his department.

Ms Nora Lawrence, a Traveller working with Pavee Point, said settled people were more preoccupied with concerns about intermarriage than Travellers.

"We've never seen anything wrong with it. The settled people have a lot of myths about it, but it wasn't an issue for us. We've always had cousins marrying. It's a myth that people are thrown together and forced to get married. People make up their own minds."