In a desperate bid to reduce the spread of of hereditary blood diseases, Saudi Arabia is placing a new emphasis on their mandatory premartial screening and genetic risk assessment. 

According to Gizmodo, although this was made mandatory over a decade ago, the awareness hasn’t been enough to stop couples getting married. It seems that the test results are not as influential as the country first thought, as many couples continue into marriage, with the expectation of having children. 

Hereditary blood diseases like sickle cell and beta thalassemia are prevalent in this part of the world, especially as marriage between cousins is so common. 

As a result, the country has launched a new campaign to raise further awareness about genetic diseases, and what causes them. Mating between first cousins is especially problematic, due to the gene pool being literally cut in half. Although the country mandates testing for common hereditary diseases, Saudi scientists have also begun uncovering diseases that have never been seen before, let alone made it into a screening test. 

Mohammed Aljuhani, a medical student who is leading the campaign, explained, “One of the misconceptions couples have is that premarital testing is sufficient to determine whether they will have children with genetic diseases. There are so many diseases that are not tested for and can have a high risk of developing. One solution is avoiding marrying relatives, which is a significant factor leading to genetic disorders.”

The new awareness campaign is being run by medical students at Kind Abdulaziz University, under the supervision of the Princess Al-Jawhara Center of Excellence in Research of Hereditary. It should be noted that the country has input a lot of money and energy into solving the problem of genetic disease in the country, and its efforts have been extremely well-studied in academia. 

The Saudi genome team has proposed genetically screening all 150,000 or so couples who plan to marry each year, rather than continue with the current test, which at uses biochemical analysis to look for signs of disease in blood samples. A DNA screening would allow them to screen for thousands of diseases with one sample, instead of just a handful.

However, Saudi Arabia isn’t the only country who has adopted this approach. Iceland inhabits a small population whereby the risk of falling for your relative is high. As a result, deCODE has sequenced the full genomes of thousands of Icelanders, and collected genetic samples from more than 100,000 others in order to identify the genetic risks unique to the small area of 330,000 people. 

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