It is almost two decades since doctors at Sydney's Auburn Hospital began to research a devastating pattern of birth defects among babies bom to Lebanese families. Led by pioneering obstetrician Dr Caroline de Costa, the study showed significant increases in birth defects, stillbirths and miscarriages among women who were married to blood relatives, particulariy first and second cousins from families who came largely but not exclusively, from the Middle East. The study found that one in three Lebanese women were married to a cousin and, across the hospital's maternity ward, one in 10 women had married a cousin. Even more alarming was the finding that babies bom to these women were four times more likely to be stillborn and eight times more likely to suffer serious birth defects.
Ten years later, maternity ward staff reported these marriages were on the rise. De Costa followed up her landmark study, interviewing every pregnant women who booked into the hospital's maternity ward in one year. In 2001 she published her results,revealing that almost 20 per cent of women were consanguineously married. Of those,more than half were married to first cousins and almost 60 per cent were bom in Australia.
Fifteen babies bom to consanguineous couples - related by birth - at Auburn Hospital had severe defects, including heart, kidney and liver function problems. Among non-cousin couples there were five disabled babies - one with a cleft lip and two with club feet. Of those babies that died - six in total - all were bom to consanguineous couples. "What was interesting," de Costa wrote at the time, "was that the proportion of pregnant women who were consanguineously married had risen from 11 per cent in the 1980s to 19.6 per cent in 1999. "In other words.. .consanguineous marriage is continuing to be commonly practised by the next generation.
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