As a parent, as the head of a community and as someone with a deep interest in the health and wellbeing of people in our district, I welcome the findings of this important Born In Bradford study.

This study will allow us to provide scientifically sound and culturally-sensitive guidance to families and communities.

For those of us who care about Bradford and its people, it’s important that we look at the data presented objectively. The national media circus and political commentators will no doubt start putting their own spin on this study, and it is important that we keep things in perspective.

So what were the key findings from this important study? According to the BiB survey, the two main causes for Bradford’s birth defect rate being twice the national average are 1) older mums, over the age of 34; 2) parents who are blood relatives. It is interesting to note that the national media has only chosen to focus on the latter point, while totally ignoring the age factor.

Tribute should be paid to the BiB team, in particular Professor Neil Small and Dr Eamonn Sheridan, and the local media (the Telegraph & Argus) in the way they have presented the findings of this important study and the way they have tackled the sensitive issue of consanguineous marriages.

Dr Sheridan’s comments are worthy of note: “It is important to note that the vast majority of babies born to couples who are blood relatives are absolutely fine, and while consanguineous marriage increases the risk of birth defect from 3 per cent to 6 per cent, the absolute risk is still small. We should also remember that consanguinity only accounts for a third of birth defects.”

Professor Small’s comments in the T&A are also very practical and reassuring, despite some of the spin that is being put on the data by national media outlets.

“In Bradford, there are initiatives that seek to raise community awareness and services such as genetic counselling and testing in place that can be accessed by couples who are married or considering marriage to a blood relative.

“It is not our intention to counsel couples about who they choose to marry, but we do want to ensure that couples are aware of any risks so they can make informed decisions when planning their families.”

From the 11,396 children studied by BiB researchers, 386 had genetic conditions, including heart and lung problems and syndromes like Down’s, or genetic mutations like extra fingers and toes.

The BiB survey found that while 1.7 per cent of babies across England and Wales are born with a birth defect, that figure was 3 per cent in Bradford. It was also found that the risk of a child being born with a genetic anomaly rose from 3 per cent to 6 per cent if they were born to blood relatives.

Within the Pakistani sub-group, which accounted for about 45 per cent of the children involved in the project, 77 per cent of babies with birth defects were born to parents in consanguineous marriages. This is not surprising given that 63 per cent of Pakistani mothers were married to blood relatives and 37 per cent were married to first cousins.

An important factor missed out by most of the national media was that of the age of mothers.

The likelihood of having a child with a genetic defect doubles from 2 per cent among white British mums aged between 25 and 34, to 4 per cent among those aged over 34.

While the BiB study showed that 19 per cent of babies born with a genetic defect were to white women aged over 34, we do not seem to have a figure for this age group within the Pakistani women. One would think that the figure would be alarmingly higher.

It has been recognised for some time that there are problems in the Bradford area in relation to birth defects and high infant mortality. However, the link between consanguineous marriages and genetic disorders has been poorly understood in the past and it would be in everyone’s interests if the problems that have been identified in this study can be addressed as soon as possible.

The human suffering associated with any illness is enormous for all those concerned, especially for the patient and their loved ones. The BiB study has given us some clear insights in what we could do to reduce or prevent suffering associated with genetic abnormalities.

The findings from this study should help to guide how we engage with families and communities which have a higher risk of inherited disorders and offer genetic counselling. Once families understand the risks of a particular genetic problem within a blood-line, they will be able to make more informed choices about choosing a partner and/or undertaking genetic screening before the birth of a child.

No doubt healthcare bodies within Bradford and elsewhere will look at the findings from this study with great interest.

It is well known that the cost of health and social care services increases substantially with genetic problems, and anything that can be done to help recognise and resolve these problems will be welcomed.

The health services in this country are under immense pressures and they will need all the help they can get from the various religious and cultural groups across our district.

Given the sensitivity and maturity with which our local newspaper (the T&A) and our healthcare professionals have approached this subject, I have every confidence that we will succeed in improving the lives of our communities and families within Bradford.