Birth defects are the biggest killer of children in the Bradford district
OPEN DEBATE: Councillor Debbie Davies, with a copy of the report into child deaths
THE sheer scale of Bradford's birth defect problem has been laid bare in a new report on child deaths.
The report shows that two in every five child deaths in the district are caused by genetic anomalies - the most common cause of death among under-18s.
And further analysis suggests around a third of these deaths involve parents who are related to each other and carry the same faulty gene.
Councillor Ralph Berry, executive member for children's services at Bradford Council, said each death of a child was "a great loss" for the family affected and the figures had to be brought down.
And others have called for more open debate on an issue which can be seen as taboo.
Consanguineous relationships - those between blood relatives - are particularly common in the district's South Asian population, where they make up around 60 per cent of all marriages.
The report describes the latest work done by the district's Child Death Overview Panel, which aims to analyse all child deaths to try to prevent similar deaths in future.
It says: "Although most babies from consanguineous relationships are born healthy, it is more likely that the same rare gene is carried by both parents in communities where this practice is common.
"If this occurs the baby may be affected and if a serious disease, the baby may die."
Over the past six years, 187 out of 459 child deaths analysed (41 per cent) were caused by genetic, chromosomal or congenital anomalies. In comparison, the national rate is currently 24 per cent.
The second most common cause of a child death in Bradford was a 'perinatal or neonatal event', for example, a baby born very prematurely.
A closer look at 95 of the child deaths caused by genetic anomalies showed that around a third - 29 cases - involved parents who were related to each other and carried the same faulty gene.
The findings tie in with major research published last year by the Born in Bradford project, which found that the risk of a child being born with a genetic anomaly rose from three per cent to six per cent if they were born to blood relatives.
The latest study is included in the annual report of the Bradford Safeguarding Children Board due to be discussed by councillors tomorrow.
Professor Nick Frost, the independent chairman of the board, said: "It is an important issue, which is why we included it in our report."
He said work was being done locally to educate people about the issue, and that he had personally been on an awareness-raising course aimed at health professionals, social workers and those working in education.
Cllr Berry said the district was at the cutting edge of research into the field, through the Born in Bradford project.
He added: "We live in a free society and we can't tell people who they will or will not marry, but I am a believer that this programme will provide the sort of evidence and the facts that make people reflect and think about the decisions they make in life."
Councillor Debbie Davies, Conservative spokesman for children's services, called for a more open and clear debate around the issue and said schools had a role to play to make sure young people knew the risks when deciding whether to marry a blood relative.
She added: "We just need to be more open about it and make sure people do understand the risks to their children and the impact on their own lives as well."
Dr Mohammed Iqbal, chairman of the of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Association in Bradford, said efforts to raise awareness among South Asian communities had started, but there was more to be done.
He said seeing it as a question of whether relatives should marry each other was "too bold a brush" to use, but that work should be concentrated among those families at greatest risk of passing down genetic anomalies.
Dr Iqbal said in particular he wanted to see people given more information about the types of testing available.
He said: "Maybe this could be targeted through GP surgeries or maybe through mosques or schools. Those are the three areas which we can do a lot more about."
And he praised the "high level of maturity and respect" there had been in the debate over the issue in Bradford.