The Israeli Department of Community Genetics at the Israel Ministry of Health has announced a startling decline in the incidents of genetic disorders in Israeli born children. Since 2004 the department has employed a daring tactic to eliminate diseases which are carried by healthy adults and passed onto their children: prescreening couples with DNA tests.
As with most seemingly radical medical maneuvers to stave off sickness and death, many people will ask: where’s the proof that this is working? Joel Zlotogora, director of the Israeli department which has championed this genetic testing, has the proof: since 2004 Tay-Sachs, a genetic disease which typically kills a child before they reach age 5, has declined to the point where it has not been detected in over 2 years. The reasoning say health scientists is simple: with advanced genetic testing for disease carriers prior to their conception of a child, the genetic disorders can be eliminated.
Another blood test before for marriage?
While making sure adults who are inclined to marry and reproduce, many governments have implemented policies to provide for the reduction of illness such as blood tests to look for sexually transmitted disease. The testing being performed in Israel goes a big step further. By identifying adults who are carriers of various genetic diseases, meaning they have the gene but don’t have the syndrome, these people can then be prohibited from having children with other specific test recipients.
Having the carrier gene does not mean one’s offspring will necessarily be afflicted by a given genetic disease. The disease manifests, say medical experts, when two adults both carrying the gene procreate. The offspring in this case will have a “double-dose” essentially of the disorder and are therefore very likely to be afflicted by it.
Haredi Orthodox Jews: testing as early as teenagers
For Haredi Orthodox Jews, there is much that constitutes married life that is planned well before couples decide to tie the knot. Haredi Jews have been essentially the pilot-program for DNA genetics testing prior to having children. At organized events where prospective adults can meet and form marriage agreements, known as shidduch, the level of planning for the future has taken on a whole new meeting. Participants in these match-making sessions have already all been genetically pre-screened to identify carriers of disease causing genes by health officials . This testing is often performed while the person is a teenager and used to effectively segregate known carriers from ever coming into contact in the first place for marriage. In the event that two people are known to both be carriers, meaning their children will risk a 1 in 4 chance of having a given disorder, they are barred from meeting at a shidduch.
2,000 couples informed and counting
Dor Yeshorim, or “Upright Generation” is the group responsible for enacting and essentially enforcing genetic testing upon orthodox Heradi Jews. The organization was founded in 1983 by Rabbi Josef Ekstein, who himself lost four children to Tay-Sachs disease. The disease which causes nerve damage in fetuses, generally leads to paralysis and a painful death by age 5. Dor Yeshorim has worked to inform and educate people whom may be at risk for passing this horrifying condition unwittingly to their children. It was under their insistence that genetic testing was started and the group claims to have avoided more than 2,000 marriages between genetically at-risk adults who could have potentially had children with severe genetic disorders.