By Shakir Lakhani
October 25, 2013
Cousin marriages have been very common in the subcontinent and this may be one reason why quite a large number of people in our rural areas are so unhealthy.
I personally know two families whose members are the products of many generations of inbreeding. In one family – distant relatives of mine – many children are deaf and consequently unable to talk. The head of the family reacted with amazement when told that his children and grand-children suffered from various birth defects because of cousin marriages in his household.
In fact, many doctors advised him to stop arranging marriages of his grandchildren with first cousins; they asked him to arrange marriages strictly with non-relatives. Even still when he received a proposal of marriage for his 18-year-old granddaughter from another family whose son was also deaf, he rejected the proposal and instead opted to have the girl married to a first cousin who was also deaf and dumb.
The result was predictable. The couple now has two children, both deaf and dumb.
With the proposal from a on-relative, there was a good chance of a normal child being born from such a marriage, but sadly, this arrangement was not given a chance.
In another family I know, practically everyone is cross-eyed. They cannot be convinced that this too is because they, their parents, grand-parents and even great grand-parents were married to first cousins. They point out to others who married first cousins and have normal children, but obstinately close their eyes to the fact that in those cases the ancestors of the children’s parents were not closely related.
Among certain Hindu castes, marriage between cousins is banned. In fact, in some Hindu sects, a boy and girl from the same village are considered to be brother and sister, even though they are not related. But in most Hindu castes, cousin marriage is considered to be normal.
In Bradford (UK), out of 11,000 children born between 2007 and 2011, 2,000 children (born to Pakistan-origin parents) had a six percent chance of having a congenital abnormality, compared to three percent chance of children of non-Pakistani groups. This was because the Pakistan-origin children were born in families in which cousin marriages had been taking place for many generations. Doctors have also found a link between cousin marriage and heart and lung problems as well as Down syndrome.
This does not mean, of course, that marriages between first cousins should be banned altogether as it is in 24 states in the US. What I mean to say is that if the boy and girl are not the end products of generations of inbreeding and if there is no known genetic defect which can be passed on to their offspring, they should not worry about their children being born with genetic defects. However, in most areas of Pakistan, where marriages between first cousins have been the norm for centuries, it is advisable to educate the masses about the risks which children born of cousin marriages can be exposed to.